The myth of the American hero

IOWA CITY, Iowa – A friend once told me how her mother cried when she read in the paper that Mickey Mantle was an alcoholic.

The famous center fielder for the New York Yankees was driven to drink by the stress of his playing days — and the pressure applied on him by his manager, Casey Stengel. The media had known about Mickey’s illness since his years as a ballplayer, but reading those words written about a national hero drove my mother’s friend to tears.

Mickey Mantle was a national icon. He had been protected for years by a sympathetic media that once covered up scandals about famous people to help them maintain a respectful image. But now the media have changed.

Richard Ben Cramer recently published a biography of Joe DiMaggio, another famous center fielder for the New York Yankees. The book highlights the life of a man who was a national hero.

Cramer shatters this myth by telling the truth about a man who was driven by money, power and fame. DiMaggio only started playing baseball, a game some would argue he played better than any man, because he did not want to work on his father’s fishing boat.

But does that matter? At what point is the media’s attempt to tell the whole truth too much? To many people, DiMaggio’s disgusting treatment of women was a blight on his character, but a nation still circled around him at a time of war looking to this young baseball player as an example of American strength.

I struggle with this question myself as I consider a world in which many famous people do not want to be heroes.

One of my own heroes, Lance Armstrong, a man who fought back from testicular cancer to dominate one of the world’s most challenging sports, is sponsored by Nike. Nike is now famous for the workforce it employs, mostly young children in sweatshops worldwide cranking out sneakers.

Does this mean I should write to Lance and ask him to drop his sponsorship? Or do I take into consideration that Nike never stopped sponsoring Lance during his chemotherapy treatment, even after the cancer had spread to his brain? I don’t know.

Now, Simon ‘ Schuster publishing house is advancing Hillary Rodham Clinton $8 million for her memoirs. In an industry in which first-time authors are not known for receiving big contracts, Clinton’s book will have to outsell almost all pieces of nonfiction written to date to turn any form of profit.

Can we assume that Simon ‘ Schuster bought this book because of the thrilling tales of Clinton’s years in law school, or do we conclude that this will be a ‘tell-all’ about her years in the White House? For $8 million, I think the answer is obvious.

But what does this say about our society? Everyone wants to know everything he or she can about the people who are famous in this country. There are magazines, television stations and Internet sites devoted to making the latest gossip available.

People can get all of the information they want faster than they can buy milk. And something about that process is spoiling America.

In 50 years, I don’t think we will have to worry about someone crying over news of the past. I think the myth of the American hero has been obliterated by an American media driven by money and greed.

The person who wins on this field is the person who can reveal the most dirt about the most people. And all this does is cause my friend’s mom to cry when she reads about the illness of her childhood hero, a man who had to deal with his problem while a nation watched every step and waited for him to fall.