C Notes: When the legend becomes fact, print the legend

January 24, 2013

A blog by George C. Wilson.
The headline is a quote from the movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” If you have not seen it or it has been a long time since you last saw it I won’t bore you with a bunch of details. The great American Western film director John Ford made the film late in his career after he and one of film’s stars, John Wayne, made a fortune selling the mythos of the American West in Hollywood.
Perhaps it was Ford’s way of acknowledging that he had participated in a decades long deceit. A cynic might point out that it isn’t much of an apology. And what’s to apologize for – making a career on selling legends is a time honored American tradition – and Ford made money on his expose of the Western Myth he helped create.
As of this writing it is the morning of January 17, 2013. The Manti Te’o nonexistent dead girlfriend story is breaking across the giant and always hungry for scandal 24 hour news cycle. This story is setting up to be yet another example of how the legend seems to be accepted as fact more readily than hard truths. The very nature of getting everyone to accept the truth seems to be difficult for our society.
We love… and have always loved our legends. We cling to them like life rings in the raging storm waters of our turbulent culture. Legends provide a simple narrative free of challenging and often contradictory reality based explanations of what is actually going on. And to be fair in every generation we have highly motivated and very skilled hucksters bent on selling us a legend. For fun – for profit – sometimes both and sometimes to protect themselves or something they value from damaging realistic observation and evaluation. Truth be damned. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
Does it come as any surprise that Notre Dame is the hatching point for a story like Manti Te’o’s? He is a gifted athlete to be sure. But for some reason that is not enough. In large part the Notre Dame mythos is built on a very similar story. The Late George Gipp – “The Gipper” – was a gifted All American football player at Notre Dame long ago. Gipp was famously portrayed by Ronald Reagan (more on him in a moment) in the movie “Knute Rockne- All American.”
The Gipper was supposedly a naturally gifted and high spirited problem child of an athlete who under the expert tutelage of Knute Rockne became a true team player dedicated to building dear old Notre Dame into a national collegiate football powerhouse. Most knowledgeable historians of college football know this to be a handy legend – not the truth. Gipp was gifted athletically – but never a good student or a good citizen.
In fact Rockne allowed Gipp to live outside of the normal team rules as he allowed his best player to continue his partying and carousing during season.
Eventually Gipp succumbed to strep throat and pneumonia after the end of his senior season. Detractors assume it was a result of his hard partying lifestyle. That is speculation – strep and pneumonia were deadly in the 1920’s well before the advent of antibiotics. But there is no better story than that of a hero dying young. Knute Rockne knew that and exploited it. He created the legend of The Gipper to motivate his players in subsequent seasons.
Hollywood built on it after Rockne’s own untimely death. And for generations since the whole swaths of the Notre Dame faithful repeated the legend of The Gipper as though the young athlete descended from some sort of football Olympus – sent by the gods of the sport to establish Notre Dame as a national powerhouse. In fact George Gipp was from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. But that doesn’t really matter because when the legend becomes fact you have to print the legend.
And what about The Gipper? Ronald Reagan – the President of the United States a generation ago – not the young man he portrayed in his earlier acting days.
His legend is… well it is legend in the minds of conservatives of this era. Reagan, by accounts given to us by purveyors of the conservative message and mythos from this generation, never took a false step and he was a paragon of conservative ideological purity. A simple reading of history will tell you different. Reagan was a tax raiser – something that is anathema to Tea Party conservatives today. Reagan was a borrower and spender. Again in this era when conservatism is often defined by its rhetoric of deficit hawking and budget slashing that is an inconvenient truth.
Deficit hawk conservatives of today who invoke the legend of Ronald Reagan surely don’t like that the legend of Ronald Reagan does not jive with the reality of Ronald Reagan. But think of the conservatives who slavishly follow dictates of the National Rifle Association. They truly don’t want to hear of the legendary Ronald Reagan, straight shooting Ron, Death Valley Days cowboy legend Ron, actually imploring congress to ban assault weapons. Then Ex-President Reagan did so in 1994 via letter. And for a decade we did have such a ban. The NRA worked hard to overturn that ban. And conservatives ignored the logic of their legendary icon, Reagan, and empowered the NRA to do exactly that and more. But in the minds of many of today’s conservatives Ronald Reagan is now in the great beyond happily shooting skeet with John Wayne and Barry Goldwater and all three of them would never buck the will of the NRA. Why? How does that become the truth? Because when the legend becomes fact… print the legend.
That’s enough history for the moment. We don’t really have to travel off the sports pages to find more on the continuing narrative of how Americans are continually falling prey to purveyors of myth and legend. Somewhere Lance Armstrong has got to be giving thanks for the short attention span of the American public.
The Te’o scandal is going to push the story of his non apology apology to Oprah and her faithful watchers right out of the headlines. Now Armstrong can get back to his new full time occupation: Repackaging the Lance Armstrong Legend for a new generation. Stripped of his Tour de France titles for cheating and doping after years of savage denial and vilification of his detractors Armstrong can now focus on building doubt over those who would pull him down from his own skillfully built legend pedestal. Will he be successful? Don’t bet against it. Because as we all know in America it is difficult to go broke selling the legend. After all is said and done when the legend becomes fact you can count on people believing the legend. You just have to keep repackaging it and printing it.
Another noteworthy example of the legend supplanting obvious facts in the sports arena is the story of Tim Tebow. He is not an example of a sports hero with feet of clay in the tradition of Lance Armstrong. But his story is an example of a forced and often repeated narrative supplanting obvious facts. Tebow was successful in college football – eminently so.
As an NFL player his achievements are less special. Tebow is likely not engineering the building of the myth surrounding him – at least not solely by himself like Lance Armstrong. (Although like Armstrong he is making a pretty nice living off of his legend) He likely is the paragon of Christian virtue he portrays publicly.
He just isn’t a championship quality NFL quarterback. But oh how his followers believe he can be. He has to be in their eyes. They desperately need a Christian hero who will be not only a Super Bowl champion quarterback on the field but also a testament to the faith Tebow publicly displays.
To a somewhat cynical casual observer it is apparent that the Tebow legend true believers are ready and willing to buy into a story line that Tim Tebow would be a success in the NFL but he is being held back by NFL power brokers because he won’t put his faith on the back burner. The dynamic of the when the legend becomes fact print the legend is, potentially, written large in the Tim Tebow story.
There are other examples of the legend becoming fact. Here are a few obvious and basically truthful denials that will likely do very little dislodge myths. George Washington told lies – and he was notorious for padding expense accounts sent to the Continental Congress. Abraham Lincoln was not an enlightened abolitionist – he was a pragmatist devoted to preserving the Union. His racial attitudes reflected the 19th century white men that were his contemporaries — not very pleasant by today’s standards. Babe Ruth was not a paragon of sportsmanship and a noble baseball hero hitting home runs for sick children – he was an overly indulged and self-indulgent man child with a gift for hitting a baseball. Joe Paterno was not the infallible hero of virtuous leadership coaching his football teams to success season after season while other college powerhouses played fast and loose with the rules. Paterno was a coconspirator in covering up horrendous acts of predatory child molestation by one of his trusted long time assistants. This could go on and on and on but you probably are getting the point by now.
Thank goodness we have a free press in the United States devoted to guiding us through this minefield of legends obscuring fact. Well… not really. Who are the grandest purveys of the printed legend supplanting fact? The American Free Press that’s who. And like the stock broker who makes money off you whether you make money in stock transactions or not they won’t have it any other way. Keep that in mind as you watch members of the press figuratively pound their chests and decry the actions of Manti Te’o and those around him. Many of those same reporters are the ones who got you to read and watch their reportage on the budding legend of the Notre Dame linebacker.
And now for profit and fun and in some cases to build up their own miniature scale legends they will explode the myth in headlines and in juicy expose essays. I suppose you could make a pretty good case that in my own way I am doing exactly that in this column – I am feeding off the legend building process just like others in the press. In my defense I would point out that I am unpaid and even by the most generous description of the American Free Press I am only nominally a member of that particular fraternity.
Printing and accepting the legend instead of the fact is an American standard. We can’t seem to help buying into the whole process. It is part of the DNA of our culture. Here’s hoping that over time maybe we will learn to stop and take a moment to reflectively think when the next breathless report of heroism betrayed hits the press. Maybe that will break the cycle of printing the legend instead of the facts. I’m not betting on it – but one can hope. Until that time I will close this installment of C Notes with a small mercy to Notre Dame Football fans reeling from both the shellacking they took recently and the blow to their vastly overblown mythos coming to light with this blooming scandal.
Ahem… just this one time for The Gipper and Knute and Ronald Reagan and all the supposed legends out there: “…Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame, Wake up the echoes cheering her name…”
george c.

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