The Dilettante

Bush Leaguer

The Clemens hearing as national symbol.

Roger Clemens. Click image to expand.
Roger Clemens

The New York Post is designed to tingle the lizard brain of its readers, via one button labeled “Prurience,” a second labeled “Outrage,” all to no greater purpose than to further the ambitions of its owner, Rupert Murdoch, and to fill my infrequent subway rides from Brooklyn into Manhattan with some kitschy distraction. Unlike the Times, the Post has no reputation to guard, save one: Its sports page is hands-down the best in the city. It delivers exactly what the sports consumer most craves—i.e., rumor, innuendo, supposition, and scurrilous gossip. Above all, it delivers opinion, not with the white-glove judiciousness of the Gray Lady but with the barstool surety of a delightful, irresponsible, and thoroughly knowledgeable drunk. Among the New York sports opinionati, the back page of the Post operates as a kind of final verdict. Is your favorite slugger a Boy Scout or a philanderer? A stalwart or a crybaby? A hero or a bum? We report; we decide.

Caught, no doubt, between wanting to join in the occult right-wing defense of Roger Clemens and not wanting to piss away its reputation as the final word in sports on something so trivial as politics, the Post failed to come up with a screaming (and screamingly funny) double entendre to sum up Clemens’ testimony before Congress. Instead, the Post played it down the middle: in demure type, with an uncharacteristically un-punning and complete sentence, they admitted “Clemens comes up small as Andy’s testimony ignites new storm.”  (“Rocket Fizzles in DC,” read a somewhat more pointed interior headline.) The Post joins a nearly unanimous chorus among sportswriters and editors that Clemens appeared disingenuous, to say the least, and possibly obstructive of justice, to infer the worst. Substantively, few of Clemens’ protestations survive logical scrutiny; his demeanor, meanwhile, was that of a wounded little baron, surprised finally to discover the limits of the Jockocracy running up against the border of the adult universe.

Well, maybe not quite the adult universe. I had tuned in to the hearing with an agenda of my own. In the mid-’50s, the sociologist Edward Shils wrote a now-famous paper in which he described the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II as “an act of national communion” on the part of the British people. The medium for this communion was, well, the media—specifically, the mass media, which Shils regarded as capable of delivering social integration and interpersonal ennoblement. I don’t think of Shils that often, but the hope conveyed by his thesis hits me now and again when I listen to a ballgame on the radio, preferably at night, preferably with my wife and children asleep in the car as I drive. 

Baseball is unique among American professional sports for being moseying, intricate, and ritualistic and for requiring of its players patience and skill. Before it was inflated beyond recognition by steroids, it was only rarely spectacular. It’s a beautiful live sport, of course, for that magnificent emerald swath of grass and the clockwork rotation of fielders on even routine plays. But it’s also a uniquely beautiful radio sport, for being, unlike football and basketball, so ambient. On a summer night in New York City, the radio call of a Mets or Yankees game is everywhere—spilling out of low apartment windows, Dopplering from passing cabs, buzzing from the transistors of street vendors. 

Forgive the urban sentimentalist for regarding a walk through the East Village during the World Series as a modest version of Shils’ national communion. My hope for the Clemens hearing, then, was twofold. Like most viewers, I wanted to witness a central and iconic contributor to the ruination of the sport finally being called to account. But I also wanted to witness a modest Shils moment in itself, one that would—again, modestly, and probably only in my own mind—turn the corner on some recent history. That history stretches back to Oliver North, moves up to the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings, touches meaningfully if tangentially on the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, culminates in the impeachment in the House of President Clinton, only to spasm out of control by handing the presidency to George W. Bush against the manifest will of the people. 

What do these episodes have in common? Aside from the obvious (each was a media circus), all of them reached beyond the usual scope of a passive medium and enforced on the viewer a rapt but horrified docility in the face of an obvious transgression against an equally obvious truth. The Bush presidency is the perfect culmination of this history, just as the Beatles’ appearance on Ed Sullivan was the perfect culmination, a dozen years later, of Elizabeth’s coronation. As I watched Republicans, one by one, say anything to smear Brian McNamee, my modest hope for a modest TV reconciliation fizzled out. Instead of a Shils moment, we got an anti-Shils moment: another stupid and gratuitous rending of the national fabric.

With this critical difference: This time, not even the New York Post would play along. The overwhelming sentiment remains against Clemens, while most viewers are puzzled by how his veracity became a partisan issue. Clemens is a rich and politically well-connected Texan, who upon being named in the Mitchell Report immediately received a consolatory phone call from George H.W. Bush and who was chaperoned to his pre-hearing meet-and-greet sessions with committee members by Congressman Ted Poe, a Republican from Harris County, whose major urban center is Houston. The aggressive lawyering on his behalf and the Rocket’s own high-and-hard indignation is heavy with implication: Don’t mess with Texas;Don’t mess with the Bushes. Whoever’s direct bidding it was, the Republican committee members were more than happy to grandstand about the supposedly degenerate character of Brian McNamee, even as one of the worst and most flagrant cheaters in the history of American sports sat five feet to his left.

To take one example, Rep. Christopher Shays repeatedly tried to force McNamee to accept the epithet “drug dealer,” even though, as the depositions made clear, Clemens initially acquired his own drugs, then later dispatched McNamee to procure more. Only a fool argues first principles with a fool, especially when the first principle is Christopher Shays is a fool. But Shays’ shameful performance (following on his shameful performance during the Fallujah-Blackstone hearings, the Mark Foley scandal, and the aftermath of Abu Ghraib) points up the truly sad revelation behind the Clemens-McNamee face-off: How deeply ingrained the habits of bad government have become in recent years. The conservative contempt for McNamee hides a broader contempt: Contempt for Henry Waxman and George Mitchell’s presumption that a dose of good government could go a long way in healing an otherwise brutally ill sport.  

Over the course of the hearing, in which McNamee was called a liar, disgusting, and, on the basis of absolutely no evidence whatsoever—and against his own sworn testimony—a tell-all in search of a book deal, one thing became clear: That Clemens’ defense, in its deranged righteousness, echoes to perfection the heedlessness and swagger of the Bush years, the arrogant stupidity of an administration that will no doubt pardon Roger Clemens should he ever be indicted for perjury. It says, Here in Houston, boy, we make the rules. With Shils’ idea of “national communion” in mind, I think we can see a Clemens rehab job for what it really is: the opposite of baseball.