Why Te'o Hoax, Armstrong Lies Should Matter to Washington

  • Ain't nothing quite as sad as watching your heroes die/One by one as they fall soon there'll be no heroes at all" -- Waylon Jennings, "Heroes"

He comes out of nowhere and, through hard work and moxie, rises to the top of his profession -- a vessel for the hopes of adoring followers, praised and coddled until he's not. Because just as fast, he's a bum. A liar. A cheat. A loser.

Today, these words might apply to Manti Te'o and Lance Armstrong, disgraced sports stars whose fans now feel like dupes. But these feel like a political stories, because in my line of work, the cycle of disillusionment is just as fast and even more pernicious. In Washington, scandals destroy careers (Anthony Weiner, Tom DeLay, Ted Stevens, Webb Hubbell and Vince Foster) and sidetracks others (Bill Clinton and Karl Rove), while even the most successful politicians can't meet the expectations we place upon them. U.S. presidents, especially, are victims of their own mythology.

Bear with me while I connect the dots between a hoax, a doper and the decline in the public's faith in institutions, particularly government.

Te'o, star linebacker for one of the nation's most venerated universities, Notre Dame, built his image around the story of his grandmother and girlfriend dying within hours of each other during the 2012 season. That myth fell apart Wednesday when the web site Deadspin published an article saying Te'o's girlfriend didn't exist.

It is not known whether Te'o is the victim of the hoax or complicit in it. But he and Notre Dame are guilty of a cover up: As the New York Times reports, both the linebacker and Notre Dame were aware of the hoax amid the flurry of fawining news reports that accompanied the Bowl Championship Series title game on Jan. 7.

Also this week, seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong launched a confessional tour, admitting that he took performance enhancers. For years, Armstrong fiercely attacked accusers while pocketing millions of dollars in endorsements, only coming forward when the evidence against him became overwhelming and public.

Stories like these leave knots in our stomachs, because we so desperately want to believe our sports heroes are pure. We have the audacity to hope, too, that our politicians are at least competent. It's the same for movie stars, CEOs, pastors, generals, journalists, teachers, cops and leaders of all sorts: We build them up and break them down because we expect so much out of our national institutions.

And, as I wrote nearly a year ago, most institutions are failing to adapt to these times of great change. What if, in the future, that trust isn't restored?

"People could disconnect, refocus inward, and turn away from their social contract," I wrote. "If society can't promise benefits for joining it, its members may no longer feel bound to follow its rules."

That is why the Te'o and Armstrong stories are relevant to politics: These athletes gave voters two more reasons to tell pollsters that the country is on the "wrong track," two more excuses not to trust the next politician who promises to remake Washington.