Here's to the Losers

Someone else's loss always feels like our gain, and the bigger the loss, the more we luxuriate in it.

In politics, one man's win creates many losers. And America knows what to do with those pathetic figures as they lie there prostrate and broken. Kick 'em hard.

Here's Slate's Fred Kaplan on the departing secretary of State: "And so the other shoe has dropped on the sad career of Colin Powell. Here is a man who enjoyed the most appealing life story in American politics ... a proud black man who could have made a serious run for president under either party's banner—chewed up and spit out on the shard-strewn sidewalk of Losers' Boulevard."

Are these the sounds of sadness, or is it bottomless joy?

Last week, Newsweek emptied its pockets of all the John Kerry dirt that had settled there during the campaign and lain dormant until the votes were counted. It turns out that the Kerry-Edwards crowd was totally incompetent and ran a "clumsy and unwieldy" campaign. These people couldn't even keep the candidate's cellphone charged, never mind running the Republic. (Meanwhile, the magazine reports that "President Bush, by contrast to Sen. Kerry, was a zealot for order." )

Also, now it can be told: Out on the campaign trail, Teresa Heinz Kerry was a nightmare on wheels. The migraines, the mood swings, the ego. Losers have so many problems, it's amazing they get through the day. The Teresa challenge was so huge that our patriotic media kept it to themselves, much as they used to do during the Cold War when they inadvertently stumbled on a state secret.

Of course, if the people of Ohio had only voted Democratic, at this moment we'd be getting to know our winning, utterly beguiling new first lady, and the No. 1 question on the mind of the Washington press corps would be who's getting invited to the inaugural after-party. The women's magazines would be offering tips on how to acquire a "sultry" Mozambican accent.

The Onion ran a photo of loserman Kerry apprehending Osama bin Laden, crudely doctored to make it look even funnier. The caption: "Kerry Captures Bin Laden One Week Too Late." Last Sunday, The Boston Globe offered a little item headlined, "Joining a Losers Gallery." It reported that "Kerry's portrait, supplied by the Library of Congress, will be the latest to grace the walls of The Gallery of Also-Rans, a tiny shrine to presidential losers inside a bank in Norton, Kan."

Even the hometown paper!

Why do we do this? In a superb new book due out soon, Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, historian Scott A. Sandage of Carnegie Mellon University traces modern loserdom back to its 19th-century origins. In the early 1840s, a New Yorker named William Tappan started the Mercantile Agency, a new kind of company that gathered information about businessmen all around America—their successes and failures, their characters, sometimes even their family lives. In a country of millions, the agency boasted it could find almost anyone and rate them in seven days, using a national network of paid informants that eventually numbered in the thousands and at one point included the young Abraham Lincoln. It sold the intelligence to customers who were trying to decide whether to hire an individual, make them a loan, etc.

The Mercantile Agency was "a national bureau of standards for judging winners and losers," Sandage writes. And the ratings ran the gamut from absolute raves to stern warnings that someone was, well, a loser. Entire lives could be dismissed in a few words, as in one report that said: "Worthless & Contemptible." In another case, an entire family got a failing grade: "The whole lot ... are bad eggs."

A human-rating system was a natural for a success-obsessed market economy, and the business naturally thrived. In fact, Tappan's company was a direct corporate ancestor of today's Dun & Bradstreet. It was also the precursor of the whole world of credit ratings, star systems, and who's-up-who's-down journalism in which we live. Study the front page of a major newspaper some time; huge portions of the content are all about keeping score. Who's a billionaire now? Whose movie flopped? Who's being sued? Who lost everything?

The obituary pages of The New York Times are irresistible because they are our civilization's ultimate report card. Most fascinating of all are the people who were famous enough at one point to rate a big Times send-off, yet have been washed up for so long that you've never heard of them. The best examples of this winner-to-loser trajectory are the dozens of enormous silent-film stars, such as Pola Negri, who have died in obscurity.

Presidential losers and ousted Cabinet secretaries aren't dead, not exactly, and that makes their ignominy all the more valuable. Someone else's loss always feels like our gain, and the bigger the loss, the more we luxuriate in it. Remember Jim Carrey shouting it as Ace Ventura, his lips curling around the delicious word? "LOOOOOOSSSEERRRRRRRRR!!!!"

Sandage reports that wealthy 19th-century American celebrities like John D. Rockefeller used to receive sacks of "begging letters" from failed Americans, losers who made personal pleas for money or a job. Mark Twain saved his begging mail and found it so amusing, he asked P.T. Barnum and others to send him theirs. "Let us be thankful for the fools," Twain wrote. "But for them, the rest of us could not succeed."