Olivarius: Fame and infidelity

Culture Quotient

On Friday, Tiger Woods gave a 14-minute-long press conference, apologizing to his friends, family, associates and America, for his sexual transgressions. The apology was heartfelt, as well as scripted, long and awkward. He sounded robotic and he didn’t take questions.

America loves scandal, more so when sex is involved. Tiger Woods is the latest installment in a series of sexual misadventures that are blogged, Tweeted, Buzzed and fawned over by the media. We couldn’t love it more — the sudden fall of someone who rose so high.

But Tiger is not an elected politician, he is a golfer. So why do we care so much? He was a role model and was handsomely compensated for it.

Tiger’s brand was his perfection: an indomitable competitor and upstanding family man. Nike, Accenture and Gillette, among many, invested many millions of dollars in equating their products with this perfect image. According to researchers at the University of California-Davis, Tiger’s philandering lost those investors $12 billion.

If things continue this way, Timothy Geithner will definitely be forced to bail them out.

The media certainly won’t: hypocrisy is, apparently, the one thing it can’t stomach. Luckily, Tiger isn’t facing reelection, just sex rehab and then a warm welcome back to the greens, at a date to be determined. Sure, the companies that have lost billions on Tiger might not be eager to renew their contracts (though some have stuck by him), but his career isn’t in jeopardy.

His brand is, and I hear that Axe is suddenly very interested.

Tiger’s scandal follows dozens of others from those of the Kennedys to the ones of your neighbors. But we still seem shocked. Perhaps, we shouldn’t be; sociologists at the University of Chicago reported that one in four men and one in six women have had extramarital sex based on their National Health and Social Life Survey.

Yet, Americans continue to view personal morality and values as important characteristics for politicians, movie stars and athletes. They can’t just act, hit a golf ball or make policy. Instead, their life and your personal choices are a matter of scrutinized public record. When they fail to live up our standards, whether or not they can bounce back depends both on their charisma and the type of reputation on which their career was made.

Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina on his extramarital affair with an Argentinean woman: “I’ve spent the last five days of my life crying in Argentina.” John Edwards, once a presidential hopeful, cheated on his sick wife with campaign videographer Rielle Hunter and made a sex tape and had a baby with her. Eliot Spitzer paid young women thousands of dollars for sex.

All three men have apologized — Edwards even told reporters they could beat him up because they “cannot beat me up more than I have already beaten up myself.” All three have kissed their aspiring political futures goodbye. But above all, they have been labeled huge hypocrites. And rightfully so. Spitzer’s ascent came, in part, from his hard stance on prostitution and his assertion that it is a crime against women. Sanford played himself as an upright, religious man and then used government money to pay for trips to his mistress.

But while the media and the public condemned these men to lives in the private sector, both have been quite forgiving under similar circumstances. Congress impeached Bill Clinton for lying under oath about his infidelities with an intern. He left office in 2001 with an approval rating of 66 percent, higher than any president since World War II. David Letterman, host of CBS’s “Late Show,” slept with women on his staff. He apologized, and has since escaped, not only his own affairs, but potential charges of sexual harassment. And unlike Conan and Leno, no one is trying to push him out any time soon.

What’s the catch? Why can Clinton womanize and come away more popular than before his scandal, while Edwards is fed to the dogs? I like to think of it as the Hugh Grant factor — with enough charisma, eloquence and cheekiness, anyone can get away with a few indiscretions.

It is hard to dislike Letterman and Clinton (especially as a liberal, but even as a conservative). They made themselves — and then saved themselves — by talking. Letterman openly discussed his affairs in a funny apology to begin his show before the story broke. Clinton lied about the Lewinsky scandal and tried to cover it up, but Hillary wasn’t dying and the country had just posted its first budget surplus in nearly 30 years; he, like Letterman could charm his way out of it.

Most importantly, neither Letterman nor Clinton pretended to be saints. There were rumors of Clinton’s affairs dating back to his days as governor. Letterman has a famously foul mouth and makes a living roasting people. Neither made themselves by pretending to be straight shooters, so their overarching message wasn’t contradicted by their penises.

Where Tiger is in all of this is unclear. He will go back to golf, and he will remain rich. But the real question is whether his brand — his perfect “political” image— can recover. To be sure, he had all the makings of a saint. But maybe if he doesn’t try to play the perfect victim, if he stops being an apology automaton, the media will let him off — the charm that got him in trouble to begin with might help get him out.

Kathryn Olivarius is a junior in Branford College.

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