‘Roid Nation: Fraud, self-deception, and adding an asterisk to an era in U.S. history

I’ve only met the sound-minded and capable George Mitchell a couple of times in passing and listened to him speak a couple of others. But his appointment as Mideast Special Envoy by Hillary Clinton reminded me of the few days last summer I spent sitting next to a pool with Barry Bonds. Not that we ...

589211_090123_Barry_Bonds_1.23_resized2.jpg
589211_090123_Barry_Bonds_1.23_resized2.jpg

I've only met the sound-minded and capable George Mitchell a couple of times in passing and listened to him speak a couple of others. But his appointment as Mideast Special Envoy by Hillary Clinton reminded me of the few days last summer I spent sitting next to a pool with Barry Bonds. Not that we spoke beyond smiling and saying good morning or asking if a deck chair was occupied. He was with his family. I was with mine. But you can bet we looked on with interest as he and his wife and their kids spent their holiday together. An indelible image is Bonds walking with his youngest daughter to go watch Finding Nemo together at an outside showing of the movie. They were the model of a sweet, loving family -- at least as far as the prying eyes of neighboring observers could tell. But I could also see a softness in Bonds's eyes that was not reminiscent of what one saw on the baseball field, a sign of the toll his steroid ordeal was taking on the one-time hero.

Mitchell's appointment brought this image back to mind because, of course, the former Maine senator headed the inquiry into steroid abuse in baseball. While the final report was not without its critics, the effect of the report was to bring the widespread abuse into the open and to effectively cauterizing the wound to the national pastime.

I’ve only met the sound-minded and capable George Mitchell a couple of times in passing and listened to him speak a couple of others. But his appointment as Mideast Special Envoy by Hillary Clinton reminded me of the few days last summer I spent sitting next to a pool with Barry Bonds. Not that we spoke beyond smiling and saying good morning or asking if a deck chair was occupied. He was with his family. I was with mine. But you can bet we looked on with interest as he and his wife and their kids spent their holiday together. An indelible image is Bonds walking with his youngest daughter to go watch Finding Nemo together at an outside showing of the movie. They were the model of a sweet, loving family — at least as far as the prying eyes of neighboring observers could tell. But I could also see a softness in Bonds’s eyes that was not reminiscent of what one saw on the baseball field, a sign of the toll his steroid ordeal was taking on the one-time hero.

Mitchell’s appointment brought this image back to mind because, of course, the former Maine senator headed the inquiry into steroid abuse in baseball. While the final report was not without its critics, the effect of the report was to bring the widespread abuse into the open and to effectively cauterizing the wound to the national pastime.

Now, Mitchell has a similar job. U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has just gone through a period in which the world has experienced the United States as a steroidal bully, pumped up to impose its will, demonstrating tell-tale signs of “‘roid rage.” (Every user of steroids has a tiny Dick Cheney in his head, goading him to ignore acceptable behavior, or the constitution, and to take it out on the world.) This leads me to think that people may come to define recent U.S. history as ‘Roid Nation. 

Comparisons between the past decade or two and the Gilded Age have been popular because of the boom and excess of that period in the late 19th Century. But whatever one may think of the trusts that built that era (and I personally think many were just companies seeking to adapt to the emergence of a national economy in the wake of the Civil War), the growth was real, it was America in full flower. Much of the growth of the past decade or two, as it turns out, has not been real. It has been an illusion based on the use of economic and political performance enhancement drugs: a real estate bubble, a dot com bubble, vast oceans of unregulated derivatives pumped into the bloodstream of the global economy making it appear pumped up and powerful when it was anything but. On the national security front, we have spent enormous sums and built the most powerful military in history — on credit, again looking fierce to the world, but not thinking about the effect on future generations. (Steroids have an impact in that regard, too.)

In fact, since 1980, America’s story has had a continuous theme of enhancing appearances while actually in many areas weakening foundations that echoes baseball’s steroid era. Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds “saved the game” made us think the essential goodness was still there, while doing whatever it took to win. (In many respects it was the footballization of baseball, the “just win, baby” mentality of Oakland’s Al Davis, who after all gave us Lyle Alzado and other cautionary tales, a sign that America wanted to appear behemoth to live up to a national image marketed by beer companies and the Republican National Committee.) Think of the endless parade of frauds and deceptions: beginning in 1980 with Ronald Reagan, president for the Beatlemania-era, not an actual president but an incredible simulation, triumphal military victories in Grenada and then later Panama (and against an Iraq that was much weaker than anyone would admit.) Boesky, Milken, Drexel, the S&L scandal (one of the greatest thefts of public funds never really covered by the press), Bill Clinton offering a return to conscience (where the world was concerned not so much when his family was involved), scandals in religious ministries, the baseball scandals, politics being overtaken by the BALCO’s of the spin world using media and polling and mass spending as the “cream” and the “clear”, the bubbles, the world of Bernie Madoff.

America has always had hucksters, but has self-delusion and fraud ever played such a consistent role in our national life, in our view of our selves? Has self-awareness ever been so necessary or so long-overdue (along with self-control and restraint and prudence and patience and a host of other non-steroid era virtues)? Will Obama do what Mitchell did? Is he just another smooth talking, feel-good solution? Or is he the real deal at just the time America most needs to close the door on a difficult chapter in our history?

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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