What do Joe Paterno, Muammar al-Qaddafi, Silvio Berlusconi, and Rupert Murdoch have in common?
The obvious answer, of course, is that 2011 turned out to be a very bad year for each of them. There were clearly important differences between them -- Qaddafi was the only one with blood on his hands and is the only one who is dead -- but there are some striking similarities too.
For starters, all of these men -- and note, they are all men -- were not exactly ... umm ... young. Qaddafi was the youngest of the bunch at 69; Berlusconi is 75, Murdoch is 80, and Paterno almost 85.
Second, all four held power in their respective domains for long periods. Qaddafi ruled Libya for 41 years; Berlusconi dominated Italian politics for roughly 17, Murdoch took over his first media company in the early 1950s, and Paterno became head football coach at Penn State way back in 1966.
Third, except for Qaddafi -- who did remarkably little for Libya despite the vast oil wealth at his disposal -- the other three could lay claim to a number of positive achievements. Whatever one thinks of Berlusconi's political career or Murdoch's journalistic standards, one has to concede that both men did create successful business empires. And whatever one thinks of Paterno's handling of the scandal that cost him his job, there's no question he was a highly successful college football coach for many years. But as dramatists have taught us since ancient Greece, success has a way of breeding hubris.
But the feature that unites these very different men is that each became less and less accountable, and increasingly insulated from candid, face-to-face criticism. Who was going to tell Qaddafi that he was mostly a despotic failure and increasingly unpopular, and that his "Green Book" of supposed "philosophy" was incomprehensible claptrap? Which News Corp. employee was going to warn Rupert Murdoch that his take-no-prisoners approach to journalism was leading the company into corrupt criminality? Did anyone in Berlusconi's inner circle try to tell him that he had become a self-indulgent and sybaritic laughingstock? Could any member of Penn State's cult of "JoePa" puncture the bubble and make it clear to him that there was something rotten in Happy Valley? It appears not.
As a result, each of them began to think that the normal rules didn't apply. Paterno seemed to think he was as effective a coach at 84 as he'd been twenty years previously, ignoring everything we know about the aging process. Berlusconi's media empire allowed him to shape what many Italians believed about him, despite the recurring scandals and his protracted failure to do anything to fix the anemic Italian economy. Murdoch and his associates seemed to think that spying on people and hacking their phones was perfectly legit as long as it helped sell papers. And at the extreme end, a megalomaniac like Qaddafi was willing to kill his own people to sustain his own kleptocracy, while somehow believing to the end that he deserved to govern. And in each case, the events that ended their long runs seemed to catch them unawares and unable to respond.
Finally, in each case, a culture of deference and sycophancy gradually blinded all of them to what was really happening. The personal tragedy is most apparent in the case of Paterno, a decent if stubborn man who failed to recognize or accept that a trusted associate was in fact a criminal sexual predator. But this same tendency is also evident in the other cases -- and with even greater effect -- as the vainglory of these powerful men inflicted great harm on many others.
"If men were angels," James Madison wrote in Federalist #51, "no government would be necessary." But we are not angels, and the dark side of human nature is likely to emerge whenever any of us becomes too big, too powerful, or too revered to be held accountable. The ignominious ends that these four men suffered in 2011 also remind us that even clever and powerful leaders cannot always escape their past sins.
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