● Michael Phelps, Michael Phelps, Michael Phelps: can we simmer down the gaseous hyperbole just a little? He’s not, despite NBC’s extraordinary efforts to paint him so, a composite of Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Jonas Salk, and Albert Einstein. He swims laps, for God’s sake. The silver-tongued Matt Lauer of NBC asserts one morning, “All eyes around the world are focused on Michael Phelps at this moment.” Oh, really? This pronouncement occurred not two minutes after the morning-show newscast described the horrific killing and destruction going on in Georgia following the Russian invasion. Those poor people, I’m afraid, couldn’t care less about the illustrious Phelps, and, oh-my-God, probably never heard of him. Shame on you, Mr. Lauer. It appears the fever pitch of American jingoism is even worse in 2008 than in the games of 2004 and 2006, and those were outrageous enough. Last week, for instance, I saw on NBC a musical montage of approximately 30 photographs of competitive events. Only Americans appeared in every one of the pictures; there were zero images of any other country’s athletes. We’re an infantile, narcissistic nation, just too preoccupied with ourselves.
● In prime time, the only competitions we are permitted to see at length are events Americans have a shot at medals. Nothing else matters. That’s why viewers have been bombarded with hours and hours of swimming. Mr. Gripes got seasick watching. I swim laps on occasion, and ‘boring’ is the operative word. Looking at other people do laps ratchets up the tedium factor by a factor of 1,000. How about two-women beach volleyball? Let’s be honest: beautiful women in bikinis and gold medals are the ‘hooks’. The sport belongs on Venice Beach, not in the Olympics; it’s just too insignificant to devote about 100 hours of broadcast. Another ridiculous competition: two-men synchronized diving. Mr. Gripes would like to issue an edict: no males may participate in anything that is ‘synchronized.’ Females built along the beautiful, soft, supple lines of Esther Williams do ‘synchronized’ stuff. Not men. Males are all about muscle mass and strength, and smashing into each other. Rugby or a 94-mile-an-hour fastball buzzed 3 inches under the chin works. Diving into the pool with the grace of a swan does not; that ought to be a woman’s domain. Big guy, go over to the Bird’s Nest and throw a shot put, will you?
● One of the Olympic tenets and ideals constantly emphasized by its organizing committee is an insistence on ‘fairness.’ All countries shall come together for a fortnight of fair and equal athletic competition. Horse-bleep. Just like in the dog-eat-dog world out there, the ‘haves’ have overwhelming advantages over the ‘have-nots.’ Once more, Mr. Gripes casts his jaundiced eyes upon swimming. Nike and Reebok supply American swimmers, and other rich countries, with supersonic, aerodynamically superior swim suits. Poorer nations cannot afford them, and do without. That’s a distinct advantage; in fact, I’d call the suits ‘performance-enhancing.’ Heard that term before? Sure you have. It refers to the drugs – HGH, amphetamines, steroids – that baseball and football players are excoriated for using, to gain an advantage. Funny how that works. If it’s discovered a ballplayer uses drugs, he’s essentially deemed a leper by sportswriters and fans, who bitch and moan about a ‘level playing field’; if American swimmers wear swim suits that increase speed, to the obvious detriment of most opponents, they’re potential gold-medal winners and are deemed heroes. Mr. Gripes has a suggestion: the athletic apparel companies donate at no cost suits to the Olympian swimmers of ALL countries. It’d be great advertising and publicity, for one thing. But it will never happen. Those companies would immediately be branded as ‘traitors’ by the likes of Limbaugh, Hannity and all the other right-wing blabbermouths. We’re not interested in fairness, only winning.
Nice Guy-ism – “He’s a nice guy.” For most American males, this is one of the highest accolades that can be bestowed on someone. Our garrulousness and bonhomie are characteristics every other nationality in the world recognizes in the American character. We almost demand these traits of each other. Mr. Gripes once again demurs: in fact, the insistence on everyone being a “nice guy” has damaged us. Americans are very good at delusion – that is, seeing the world not as it is, but as we’d like it to be. Lately, as we all know, it’s killed us.
Let’s look at the George Bush experience. George Bush ran against Albert Gore in 2000. He did not run on a record of experience, intelligence or superior judgment. His campaign instead emphasized that Mr. Bush was a man “who you could sit down and have a beer with.” [Mr. Bush is a teetotaler, mind you.] He was a man quick with a joke, a slap on the back, just an amiable chap all-around. In contrast, Al Gore was a serious, seemingly humorless, academic sourpuss. That’s how the race was framed [and the Kerry race four years later as well]. Voters could feel comfortable with George Bush; he seemed to be a nice guy. [His father went even further perpetuating the myth that he was a regular sort; his staff put out a statement that he loved pork rinds – Sure, King George the Elder: you were raised in Greenwich, Connecticut, your father was a U.S. Senator, and your grandfather founded a Wall Street investment house; you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee blueblood. Be honest: you’d rather eat bird seed than bite into a pork rind.] And, Americans were duped into electing an individual of very meager achievement, but who was a “regular guy.”
Mr. Gripes will let you in on a secret: any successful politician by definition is not a nice guy. An individual with that kind of overweening ambition, will and drive performs virtually anything to ascend and remain at the top. As the foul-mouthed and always-nasty New York Giant baseball manager Leo Durocher exclaimed, “Nice guys finish last.” George W. Bush has jettisoned close friends and associates to protect himself; that’s for certain. He’s no different than other Presidents. It was said that Franklin Roosevelt, the master politician of them all, did not have any friends, only interests; a close acquaintance might say the wrong word, and he’d be cut out of Roosevelt’s life permanently. The Clintons, who always profess to have dear friends, would regularly cast out lifelong friends if it was in their interests. That’s just the way it is. Mr. Bush is cut from the same cloth. Politicians of a certain ranking are just not pleasant people.
Let’s take a look at how effective this ‘nice-guy’ method of negotiations operates on the world stage: George Bush, very early in his first term, met with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, at essentially a ‘get-acquainted’ summit. Mr. Bush, who I would imagine has always used his charm to get by, declared after the meeting, “I looked the man in the eye. I got a sense of his soul.” He considered Mr. Putin a “friend.” Mr. Putin, a wily ex-KGB agent, played Mr. Bush for a fool. If the KGB taught him nothing else, they drilled into Putin the need to conceal; don’t let your opponent know you. George Bush, a hail-merry-well-met sort, thought he had initiated a friendly, personable relationship with Mr. Putin, and, like a tail-wagging Labrador, trusted Putin explicitly. Mr. Bush was under the impression that a smile and kind words reciprocated by the Russian leader would erase decades of near-bellicose competition between the two countries. It didn’t happen: the Russian invasion into Georgia seven years later is proof. The President, with his emphasis on cracking jokes and yukking it up, demonstrated he’d be no chess master; Mr. Putin, on the other hand, was thinking ten moves ahead and thoroughly outmaneuvered our leader. Bruising geopolitical factors determine nations’ relationships; asking about the kids and a kiss on both cheeks do not.
Whether they’re for or against, readers’ comments are always welcome.