Government has never enjoyed a great reputation in America, especially not since distrust over official lies issuing from the Vietnam War fermented in the 1960s. Then came Watergate, followed by Ronald Reagan's campaign against government, then a politics of denunciation along the lines of furious partisanship with little regard for how citizens actually feel about the issues.
Public respect for government might or might not be at an all-time low, but it's down there -- and it's only coming back if government somehow saves America from tangible disaster. As you might have noticed, that isn't happening.
The perceived lack of truthfulness from Roger Clemens in front of a congressional committee last month won't qualify by any reckoning as the tangible disaster from which the nation must be saved, but the Department of Justice is on the case anyway. In these eerie times of war and recession, the federal government will take whatever victories it can.
Call it a rear-guard action by the government to preserve its name, just in case those who wonder if Congress has nothing better to do keep asking the question. The answer to that question is "yes and no." Congress obviously faces more pressing issues of the moment, but Congress also faces the more permanent matter of asserting its own gravity and legitimacy.
In other words, the federal government hasn't yet lost so much self-confidence that the athletic kingdom's perennial adolescents can lie to its prosecutors and legislators and then walk away laughing. The feds shouldn't fool with Clemens, but they almost have to, the same way they had to go after Barry Bonds and Marion Jones.
Others can lie to Congress and federal prosecutors, but when persons of such high profile as professional athletes make statements challenging the man on the street's credulity, then the man on the street is insulted. Imagine how the feds feel. The correct word might be "outrage," and you share that feeling if you value the rule of law, which is no more than a slogan without a strong, minimally respectable government to enforce it.
We might never again believe our Congressional action heroes are immune to the influence of campaign contributions and lobbying favors, but if Congress isn't up to crushing jocks who fib under oath, then we might as well fold it up and throw open the gates to anarchy.
The federal pursuit of Clemens is a bit like a college football program scheduling a cream puff opponent. It's an easy game to play.
Congresspersons face down people who are tougher and smarter than Clemens every day. If Clemens doesn't understand that, then perhaps the American people have forgotten, too. A reminder might be in order.
At minimum, Congress must spare the people's government from derision as a laughing stock to the extent it's still possible. In his memo to Democrats on the House Government and Oversight Committee, Chairman Henry Waxman (D-California) said the independent evidence is more consistent with the testimony from Brian McNamee than the testimony from Clemens. Furthermore, Waxman said, the deposed testimony from Andy Pettitte is more consistent with McNamee than with Clemens. Someone lied to Congress, the whole country knows someone lied to Congress and Congress can't let that stand.
The truth about whether McNamee injected Clemens with steroids might never be known. At this point, it still counts, but not so much as refreshing the public and the worldwide order of athletes about who has the leverage and what really matters.
Three years ago, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire went before the same House committee to talk about steroids. Their combined performance, a rude insult against this country's definitive institution, still rubs a raw nerve.
McGwire refused to "talk about the past," Sosa pretended he didn't understand English and Palmeiro waved his finger at the committee while insisting he'd never taken steroids. Within a year, he tested positive.
The pat answer under similar circumstances insists that the law wishes to make an example of Clemens or his like. But that's missing the point. By virtue of his long-standing fame, Clemens already is an example for everything that happens to him.
Millions who never watch a congressional proceeding tuned in for the Clemens hearing. He tried to use Congress as a prop for his own shaping of public opinion. He tried to make an example of Congress and in doing so might have set his own trap.
Perhaps the resolution will expose Clemens' competitive streak as his tragic flaw, but a larger story than Clemens lies beneath his turmoil. The real question is why athletes would believe it's their place to be dismissive toward Congress.
Hardened, well-connected operators might instruct Congress to talk to the hand, but until fairly recently it was unimaginable that ball players would be so brazen.
Along with distrust of government rides a cultural divide -- not a definitive divide, but a flavorful divide that first reveals itself to young people as they're socialized in school. Putting a broad-brush label on it, we might call it Jocks vs. Nerds, a distinction that's way too easy to overdraw. Many good people develop from the athletic experience in high school and college, then move on to the serious adult work of the society.
Despite the edifying contributions of those who use athletics as a growth experience, understanding how to balance work and play as they mature, it remains that we do have career adult jocks and career adult nerds. Their presence and the distinction between them is so self-evident that it barely needs defending.
Continuing with the broad strokes, career jocks live a prolonged adolescence, the best among them are worshiped almost from cradle to grave and they earn outrageous sums as compensatory heroes in a society that's reduced ordinary work to tedium and subservience.
Though career athletes justifiably talk about how hard they work, they stop short of saying their work is truly important. But they can't help thinking that they're important and powerful because the rest of us are way too breathless in our pleasure with their exploits.
As an ever-expanding mass culture converts a society of citizens into a society of consumers, Americans increasingly concentrate on their private pleasures and comforts, declining responsibility in matters of social cohesion and the commonweal. Thus, athletes become paragons of human excellence because they entertain us with thrilling feats, while the actors of government are corrupt mushmouths who over-tax us while messing up the schools and highways.
But a little time around politics and government, even at a fairly local level, reveals the true hard-ball players. By fighting so hard to protect his reputation, Clemens has created adversaries who make Manny Ramirez look like Mickey Mouse.
Call it the Revenge of the Nerds if you like, but it's not revenge. It's just a reminder.
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