Politics and sports have a good deal in common, which is why you hear so many locker-room clichés bandied about when pundits analyze campaign decisions, debates, and election results.
Countless pundits have described the Republican Party’s primary process this year as “a marathon, not a sprint.” During the GOP debates, candidates were said to have delivered “no knockout blows,” as if these performances were taking place inside a boxing ring. Analysts themselves will admit that they are more interested in the “horse race,” that is, the campaign itself, than they are in policy initiatives.
Politics and sports produce winners and losers, so it’s inevitable that the voting process often sounds a lot like a pennant race or a playoff series. But there’s one way in which sports and politics are very different processes.
In sports, an athlete can fall from grace, suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and then return to former heights through hard work and, of course, victories.
In politics, a fall from grace often means permanent exile from polite company and posthumous derision from historians.
Take, for example, two very different personalities: Tiger Woods and Bertie Ahern.
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Once upon a time, Woods was the most-popular athlete in the world – no small claim. His fame and fortune were based, of course, on his ability to strike a golf ball, which he did better than anyone else in the world. Companies threw money at him in hopes that he would have kind word to say about their products. Fans followed him as though he were a prophet. Everybody loved Tiger.
Then, on a Thanksgiving eve in 2009, it all fell apart. The world learned that this magnificent and wealthy athlete was little more than a cad. As companies and fans deserted him, his game fell apart. He was no longer No. 1 in the world. Younger men like Rory McIlroy became stars while Woods labored to find his old magic. Amazingly, by the end of the 2011 season, Tiger Woods seemed little more than an after-thought.
Then something unexpected happened, just a few weeks ago. Tiger Woods won an important golf tournament. Suddenly, people were shouting “you’re the man” again. Television ratings soared. And, as this is being written, Woods is considered one of the favorites to win the prestigious Masters championship, a tournament he has won four times already.
If he adds a fifth Masters title to his resume, even comes close, or if he wins another major title this year, Tiger Woods will again be what he once was: A dominant personality, a revered athlete, and a cultural icon.
Victories are the cure-all for athletes who have hit rock bottom. Disgraced politicians, however, rarely if ever receive a second chance. And, frankly, that’s probably a good thing. Their work, after all, is more important than the average athlete’s.
Bertie Ahern’s recent resignation from Fianna Fáil, the party he led for more than a decade during the bygone years of the Celtic Tiger, marks the end of a political career that will be remembered as a case study in corruption, greed, and selfishness. And unlike Woods, Ahern will not get a chance (nor should he) to redeem himself. His fall from grace is permanent.
Ahern resigned from Fianna Fáil rather than face expulsion from the party. It would be hard to imagine a more-shameful fate short of serving time in the state’s custody. Ahern’s former colleagues were eager to expunge him from their ranks after the Mahon tribunal concluded that the former prime minister did not “truthfully account” for the money which poured into his bank account when he served as finance minister in the early 1990s.
The tribunal, which spent 15 years sorting through the sordid connections between business and politics in the Irish Republic, noted that Ahern was on the receiving end of 250,000 Irish pounds (this was back in the day before the euro) from friends and supporters during his stint as finance minister. Ahern insisted that these payments were from friends who wanted to help him pay bills connected to his divorce. Investigators and the Irish electorate are not buying what Ahern is selling.
And so the man who ruled Irish politics during the headiest days of the state’s existence is now a man without a party. Old friends and colleagues have deserted him (just as they deserted Woods). He is destined to spend the rest of his years in the shadow of suspicion.
If the tribunal’s conclusions are true, Ahern deserves little sympathy, just as Woods deserved little sympathy for his caddish behavior years ago. But Woods appears to have found a way to make us forget about his bad behavior. He’s winning again.
For Bertie Ahern, there will be no more victories. He is destined to remain a symbol of the gross excesses and shallow greed that ruined the lives of ordinary Irish people when the whole rotten system crashed in 2008.
Some might call it justice.