SOLOMON: "Heroes" Depend on Priorities of Media Spin

Right now, Mark McGwire is the ultimate American hero -- and Bill Clinton is almost a media zero.For years, much of the Washington press corps fawned over President Clinton. Now, as his unsteady fall from media grace turns into a high-speed plunge, journalists are standing back and waiting for him to hit bottom.The day after McGwire set a record with his 62nd home run, three dozen file boxes -- filled with Kenneth Starr's case against the president -- reached Capitol Hill. Their arrival dramatized how Clinton's fortunes have changed.In the presidential tradition, Clinton spent years basking in the glow of flattering media coverage. Like George Bush and Ronald Reagan before him, Clinton took pleasure in socializing with elites and serving their economic interests.When this year began, the Gallup polling organization found that Americans admired Clinton more than any other man "living in the world today." Such media-fed idolatry is longstanding: "The Gallup Poll has tracked America's choice of most admired men and women since 1946 and finds that in almost every year, the sitting U.S. president has emerged as the most admired man."A president's loyalty to upper-class economic agendas has rarely caused alarm among reporters and media commentators. Generally, the guy in the Oval Office ingratiates himself with the hierarchies of major news media by maintaining policies that enrich the already rich at the expense of the rest of us.The distance between media coverage of inside-the-Beltway politics and inside-the-ballpark heroics may be a lot shorter than we usually assume. A common denominator is reverence for the aura of wealth.News coverage routinely celebrates great athletes -- as well as popular entertainers, clever entrepreneurs and successful investors -- whose merits seem to be verified by huge incomes. In the nation's current pantheon of heroes, the people on pedestals are almost always rich.Their achievements may be awesome. But we're inclined to become so transfixed with the exceptional that we lose perspective.Mark McGwire's nearest rival in the home-run chase, Sammy Sosa, grew up poor in the Dominican Republic. Two years ago, he signed a contract with the Chicago Cubs for $42.5 million. Now he, too, is a new American hero.Rags-to-riches stories are apt to have tremendous appeal. Telling us of virtues rewarded and dreams fulfilled, they offer a kind of vindication -- not so much for the individual as for our society as a whole. Like the advertisements that portray the joys of lotto jackpot winners, these tales are supposed to be reassuring. They focus on what is gloriously true: for a few.We keep hearing about some dreams -- of career advancement, wealth, fame, glamor -- the sort of aims underscored by heroes on glossy magazine covers. We're invited to appreciate, from afar, the lives of athletes and entertainers with eight-figure contracts, or investors with holdings worth billions.Yet we hear little about some dreams that run deep and wide. For instance, millions of Americans are eager for a process of social justice to reduce the extreme inequities that pervade our economic system.Such dreams embrace those who are striving for economic justice, whether in union organizing drives or on picket lines or in a variety of protest activities.Meanwhile, many women with scant financial resources are struggling, heroically, to raise their kids -- while comfortable pundits and politicians cheer for an end to "welfare dependency."A few days ago, the Guardian newspaper in London marked 40 years since the publication of John Kenneth Galbraith's classic book "The Affluent Society." The paper printed a new essay by Galbraith, who observed that "affluence in the advanced countries is still a highly unequal thing."Galbraith added: "As people become fortunate in their personal well-being, and as countries become similarly fortunate, there is a common tendency to ignore the poor, or to develop some rationalization for the good fortune of the fortunate. Responsibility is assigned to the poor themselves."And, Galbraith lamented, "The fortunate individuals and countries enjoy their well-being without the burden of conscience, without a troublesome sense of responsibility."We need some different kinds of heroes.

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