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Sore Winners (and the Rest of Us) in George Bush’s America 

Thursday, Jul 29 2004
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Illustrations by Miguel Valenzuela

Halfway into the 2002 NFL season, 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens scored a touchdown against the Seahawks in Seattle. Crossing the goal line, he flabbergasted everyone by pulling a Sharpie from his sock, autographing the ball, and handing it to his financial adviser in a nearby box seat. The next day, the sports media were shrieking about hot-dogging, bad sportsmanship, today’s spoiled athletes — and what kind of example is this for our kids? Me, I just laughed out loud. Owens’ silly stunt was simply routine braggadocio that was inevitably topped one year later when the Saints’ Joe Horn celebrated a TD by pulling out a cell phone he’d planted in the end zone and making a celebratory call. The next day, the sports media were shrieking about hot-dogging, bad sportsmanship, today’s spoiled athletes — and what kind of example is this for our kids? And this was before “Big Brother” Shaq and “Little Brother” Kobe decided to play Cain and Abel.

It’s long been part of our national self-image that Americans are Good Winners. When Yankee soldiers triumphed over Burgoyne’s army at the 1777 Battle of Saratoga, British prisoners were impressed by the victors’ polite silence — there was no gloating or jeering. When U.S. troops entered Germany after World War II, they didn’t indulge in an orgy of rape as did the Soviets but helped rebuild the country, winning a caricatured reputation for being beaming men with chocolate bars. And when the U.S. Olympic hockey team won its famous “Do you believe in miracles?” victory over the Soviets in Lake Placid in 1980, the players exulted in their triumph without getting in the Russians’ faces.

In truth, no country always behaves well in victory. Sometimes our Winners have been gentlemanly; at others, vulgar and ruthless. Just ask the foreign basketball players flattened by Charles Barkley at the Barcelona Olympics. During the heyday of Social Darwinism, capitalists worked people to death without the slightest qualm and made no apology for it — try to form a union and goons would come after you with clubs. Meanwhile, the rich exulted in their wealth. The delightfully named Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish held a 1904 dinner party in honor of her dog, which turned up in a $15,000 diamond collar at a time when the average annual income was $380. Standard Oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller explained his fortune to a Sunday school class by declaring, “God gave me the money.”

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The Bush years may be the coarsest period in our nation’s history since those days. To my amazement, I sometimes find myself nostalgic for the comparatively modest ill manners of the Reagan years, when the U.S. invaded countries like Grenada and “Junk Bond King” Michael Milken was on the prowl. Today’s Winners don’t simply win, they win badly: bragging, sneering, lording it over the Losers, and promoting themselves with a crassness that would leave Duddy Kravitz blushing. When Hurricane Isabel knocks out the power in much of Washington, D.C., the Redskins’ billionaire owner doesn’t just get a huge generator to restore his own electricity but turns on all his lights, so that his house glows like the Vegas strip while his annoyed neighbors sit in the dark. Practicing the “look out for yourself” philosophy preached in his books, Bill O’Reilly gloats about how many copies he’s sold, accuses critics of “envy,” and uses his media platforms to pitch his books and “The Spin Stops Here” tchotchkes. Seventeen-year-old hoops phenom LeBron James drives to high school in his $50,000 Hummer, not even bothering to pretend that he’s a regular student. And careerist wiseass Dennis Miller, who now embraces George W. Bush on CNBC, the better to kick the underdog, justifies a bellicose U.S. foreign policy by saying, “We are real good at what we do, and the whole world is going to hell in a hand basket. As that gap gets wider, they’ll hate us more and more and more. We are simultaneously the most hated, feared, loved and admired nation on this planet. In short, we are Frank Sinatra, and you know something, the Chairman didn’t get to be the Chairman lying down for punks outside the Fontainbleu.”

On the worst day of his life, Ol’ Blue Eyes, who grew up poor in Hoboken, was more idealistic about America than that.

Such Sore Winners aren’t simply found in the media. Now you find such thuggishness everywhere. It’s certainly out front in business, whose leaders pride themselves on their brutality, as Donald (“You’re fired”) Trump made clear while pitching the stretch-limo fantasy The Apprentice: “I think there’s a whole beautiful picture to be painted about business, American business, how beautiful it is but also how vicious and tough it is. The beauty is the success, the end result. You meet some wonderful people, but you also meet some treacherous, disgusting people that are worse than any snake in the jungle.”

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