The Moustache of Wisdom is off today. The Pasty Little Putz is now going to ‘splain stuffs to us again. In “Romney’s Mormon Story” he gurgles that to understand the candidate, voters need to see the hidden religious core. He tells us what a swell guy Mittens is, and that he’s a real churchgoing chap, and that folks in Salt Lake are, like, really helpful. He’s polite enough to not point out that his branch of Christianity considers Mormons to be heretics. MoDo is feeling waspish. In “Likeability Index” (which is something that maybe MoDo should worry about for our own self…) she sniffs that we have one elitist, establishment, introverted candidate versus another. How refreshing. Typical MoDo crap. In “War Wounds” Mr. Kristof tells us about a veteran who wishes he had lost a limb. Instead, he has to watch himself lose his mind. Mr. Bruni loves him some Olympics. In “The Soul of the Olympics” he says the London Games showcased the very best of us. Well, yes, the performances did. The coverage and commentary, on the other hand… Here’s the Putz:
There’s an interesting dilemma facing the filmmakers who are presumably hard at work, in some well-hidden editing room, on the biographical movie that will play just before Mitt Romney accepts his party’s nomination: What should the movie say about Romney’s Mormonism?
So far, Romney has said very little about his faith in this campaign, which is clearly how he likes it. Indeed, his campaign has pushed back vigorously against even innocuous press coverage of Mormon folkways and beliefs, on the theory that trying to explain a much-distrusted, much-misunderstood religion could only distract from the economic message.
But across a long summer of negative attacks, the Obama campaign has succeeded in weakening that message, and turning the conversation to Romney’s character instead. This means the Republican convention can’t just offer an extended indictment of the Obama record; it also needs to reintroduce Romney in a more thoroughgoing way. And if his faith ends up on the cutting-room floor, this reintroduction will be missing something that’s not only essential to the candidate’s life story, but also helps makes the case for his worldview.
Start with Romney the man, so often dismissed as hollow, cynical and inauthentic. His various political reinventions notwithstanding, Romney clearly does have deep convictions: the evidence is in his intense commitment to his church, as a local leader and as a philanthropist. Between the endless hours of unpaid, “love thy neighbor” efforts required of a Mormon bishop and the scope of his private generosity, the caricature of the Republican candidate as a conviction-free mannequin mostly collapses.
If Romney were a Presbyterian, Methodist or Jew, this would be an obvious part of his campaign narrative. Like George W. Bush’s midlife conversion or Barack Obama’s tale of “race and inheritance,” Romney’s years as a bishop would be woven into a biography that emphasized his piety and decency, introducing Americans to the Romney who shut down his business to hunt for a colleague’s missing daughter, the Romney who helped build a memorial park when a friend’s son died of cystic fibrosis, the Romney who lent money to renters to help them buy a house he owned, and so on down a list of generous gestures and good deeds.
The broader Mormon experience, meanwhile, could help make the case for his philosophy as well as illuminate his human core. The presumptive Republican nominee is not naturally ideological, but he’s running as a critic of Obama’s expansive liberalism, and as a standard-bearer for a conservative alternative.
Conservatism sometimes makes an idol of the rugged individual, but at its richest and deepest it valorizes local community instead — defending the family and the neighborhood, the civic association and the church. And there is no population in America that lives out this vision of the good society quite like the Latter-day Saints.
Mormonism is a worldlier, more business-friendly religion than traditional Christianity, but it does not glorify wealth for wealth’s sake, in the style of many contemporary prosperity preachers. Instead, as Walter Kirn suggested in an essay in The New Republic, Mormonism represents “our country’s longest experiment with communitarian idealism, promoting an ethic of frontier-era burden-sharing that has been lost in contemporary America.”
To spend some time in Salt Lake City and its environs, as I did earlier this summer, is to enter a world where faith, family and neighborliness really do seem to fill the role that liberals usually assign to the state. There you can tour the church-run welfare centers, with supermarkets filled with (Mormon-brand) products available to the poor of any faith and assembly lines where Mormon neurosurgeons and lawyers volunteer to can goods or run a bread machine. You can visit inner-city congregations where bank vice presidents from the suburbs spend their weekends helping drifters find steady work, and tour the missionary training center where Mormons from every background share a small-d democratic coming-of-age experience.
And then you can read the statistics: the life expectancy numbers showing that Mormons live much longer than other Americans, the extraordinary rate at which they volunteer and donate, their high marriage rates and low out-of-wedlock birthrates — even the recent Gallup survey showing Utah leading all other states in a range of measures of livability.
Of course, a visit to Mormon country also provides reminders of why Romney has been wary of talking about his religious background. There’s the Mormon Temple, whose interior can be viewed in scale-model form but not actually entered; the defensiveness that surfaces around issues like polygamy and race; the fine line Mormon society walks between a healthy solidarity and an unhealthy conformism — and hanging over everything, the burden of defending Joseph Smith’s revelation, which offers not only bold metaphysical claims (as all religions do) but an entire counterhistory of the Americas, which no archaeologist has yet managed to confirm.
It’s understandable that Romney would prefer to keep these aspects of his religion off the table. But by trying to insulate his campaign from the things that make his faith seem alien, he’s cut himself off from things that make his life story impressive, and his message compelling. If his personality seems hollow and his philosophy insincere, maybe it’s because he’s hidden the story of his people, and the deepest longings of his heart.
The deepest longing of his heart is to hide his tax returns, shred the social safety net, and pile up more millions. Now here’s MoDo being snotty yet again:
Isn’t it amazing? Two introverts facing off in the brightest spotlight of all for president.
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are at their most appealing when they are with their families.
Unfortunately, we don’t often get that vantage point. And beyond those circles of trust, both men can seem as if they are sealed in their own spaceships.
The big difference, the one that will probably decide this presidential race, is this: Barack Obama is able to convey an impression of likability to voters. Given how private he is, an enigma even to some who are close to him, it’s an incredible performance.
That likability slips through your hands at closer range. The president survived a “raised by wolves” upbringing, as Michelle has called it. He retained the monastic skills that sustained him through the solitude of his years in New York. His “winning smile,” as Jonathan Alter wrote in “The Promise,” “obscured a layer of self-protective ice.” His staffers respect him, but he doesn’t inspire the kind of adoration that the Bush presidents got. And the pillow-plumping romance with the press is over.
The Times’s Amy Chozick wrote that the president “has come to believe the news media have had a role in frustrating his ambitions to change the terms of the country’s political discussion.”
He can be thin-skinned and insecure at times, but he radiates self-sufficiency, such a clean, simple aesthetic that he could have been designed by Steve Jobs — Siri without the warmth.
(A poll by Purple Strategies asked which candidate seemed more like Apple, and it was, naturally, Obama.)
Yet voters see something genuine, and that is why Obama seems to be surviving the stalled economy and his own chuckleheaded remark: “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
A recent USA Today/Gallup poll showed Romney with higher marks on fixing the deficit, jobs, taxes and the economy. But Obama soared on personal traits — maintaining a 30-point advantage in likability, and better numbers on honesty, trust and empathy.
When John Glenn was running for president, the former astronaut elicited greater applause when he came onstage than when he left. Romney started out off-putting and now makes Willy Loman look like prom king. Obama is introverted and graceful; Romney is introverted and awkward.
Romney advisers attributed his free fall in the polls to brass-knuckle Obama ads and summer doldrums rather than Mitt dullness. Maybe voters think Romney is already so sheathed in secret bubbles — Bain, Mormonism, his stint as governor of a liberal state — that electing him to the biggest bubble of all, the White House, would not be a good idea.
Even Republicans seem to have given up defending Mitt’s charms. As John Boehner memorably put it, “The American people probably aren’t going to fall in love with Mitt Romney.”
Some say Romney waited too long to put up his biographical ads and give personal interviews, letting himself be defined and slimed by the Obama ads.
“The Obama camp can raise a ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner on their summer project,” said Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago mayor and former Obama chief of staff. “With Romney’s help, they have defined Romney as a man with total disregard for the struggles of the middle class.”
Once a candidate gains the advantage in “Who do you want to have a beer with?” — even if he doesn’t drink beer — it’s very hard to reverse.
When Obama does rough ads, it allays the fear that he’s the sort who can get rolled by the banks, by the generals, by the Republicans in the House. When Romney does rough ads, it reinforces the fear that he’s unfeeling and a bit of a bully marketed by political mercenaries.
With only two weeks to go before the convention, the question burns: Will Mitt’s new mate, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, make his run more personable?
You can bolster your relatability with your No. 2 pick, at least with certain demographics, as Obama did with Joe Biden. But Americans like to like their president. “You can’t outsource likability,” Emanuel says. “You can’t have an offshore account for it in the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands.”
Romney’s all-business/all-family rigidity makes him seem inaccessible. And his tax legerdemain has made him seem shady. As Marc Wolpow, a former Romney employee at Bain Capital, said in a Boston Globe story about Mitt’s 1988 deal with Michael Milken while the junk bond king was under federal investigation: “Mitt, I think, spent his life balanced between fear and greed. He knew that he had to make a lot of money to launch his political career. It’s very hard to make a lot of money without taking some kind of reputational risk along the way.”
In The Wall Street Journal on Thursday, Karl Rove urged Mitt to reveal his character in his convention speech by talking openly about “his father’s modest upbringing, his wife’s illness and his wealth.”
Obama lost the thread of his narrative of hope and change, and Romney never developed one, even on his supposed specialty, the economy.
MoDo, I don’t want to be “pals” with the President. I do want to trust that he’s not a serial liar, however. Here’s Mr. Kristof:
It would be so much easier, Maj. Ben Richards says, if he had just lost a leg in Iraq.
Instead, he finds himself losing his mind, or at least a part of it. And if you want to understand how America is failing its soldiers and veterans, honoring them with lip service and ceremonies but breaking faith with them on all that matters most, listen to the story of Major Richards.
For starters, he’s brilliant. (Or at least he was.) He speaks Chinese and taught at West Point, and his medical evaluations suggest that until his recent problems he had an I.Q. of about 148. After he graduated from West Point, in 2000, he received glowing reviews.
“Ben Richards is one of the best military officers I have worked with in 13 years of service,” noted an evaluation, one of many military and medical documents he shared with me.
Yet Richards’s intellect almost exacerbates his suffering, for it better equips him to monitor his mental deterioration — and the failings of the Army that he has revered since he was a young boy.
Military suicides are the starkest gauge of our nation’s failure to care adequately for those who served in uniform. With America’s wars winding down, the United States is now losing more soldiers to suicide than to the enemy. Include veterans, and the tragedy is even more sweeping. For every soldier killed in war this year, about 25 veterans now take their own lives.
President Obama said recently that it was an “outrage” that some service members and veterans sought help but couldn’t get it: “We’ve got to do better. This has to be all hands on deck.” Admirable words, but so far they’ve neither made much impact nor offered consolation to those who call the suicide prevention hot line and end up on hold.
The military’s problems with mental health services go far beyond suicide or the occasional murders committed by soldiers and veterans. Far more common are people like Richards, who does not contemplate violence of any kind but is still profoundly disabled.
An astonishing 45 percent of those who served in Iraq or Afghanistan are now seeking compensation for injuries, in many cases psychological ones. It’s unclear how many are exaggerated or even fraudulent, but what is clear is this: the financial cost of these disabilities will be huge, yet it is dwarfed by the human cost.
Richards’s finest hour, and in retrospect his worst, came in Iraq in 2007. He was then a captain assigned to the city of Baquba, a hotly contested area where he was welcomed on his first day by a 12-hour firefight. In Baquba, Richards pioneered an initiative to cooperate with local Sunni Muslim militias — who had previously attacked Americans — to defeat the local branch of Al Qaeda.
This was ferociously controversial at first and Richards was bitterly criticized by other officers for collaborating with the enemy. But the strategy worked and was broadly adopted by the military in Iraq. The New York Times wrote that year about Richards’s leadership; the Army promoted him, and he seemed destined for greatness.
Then one day a car bomb destroyed his Stryker vehicle, giving Richards a severe concussion that left him nauseated and dazed for a week. Three weeks later, a roadside bomb knocked him out again, and he suffered a second concussion, with similar results.
Richards, now 36, struggled for months with headaches, fatigue, insomnia and fainting spells; once he passed out in the middle of a firefight. Still, he didn’t seek medical care. He figured he wasn’t really injured, and that has been a widespread problem: the military value system is such that warriors disdain medical care as long as they are physically capable of fighting.
“Coming from an Army ethos,” he says wryly, “you’re not even entitled to complain unless you’ve lost all four limbs.”
Yet there’s growing evidence that concussions — whether in sports or in the military — are every bit as damaging as far bloodier wounds. When someone suffers blows to the head, the result can be a traumatic brain injury, or T.B.I. This, eventually, was Richards’s diagnosis.
Richards’s wife, Farrah, was thrilled when he returned “safely” from Iraq in the fall of 2007, and she counted them both very, very lucky. But almost immediately, Farrah says, she noticed that the man who came home wore her husband’s skin but was different inside. “There were obvious changes in his personality,” she recalls. “He was extremely withdrawn; he would go into the bedroom for hours.”
A once boisterous dad who loved to roughhouse with his children — now there are four, ages 1 to 14 — Ben no longer seemed to know how to play with them. He often suffered incapacitating headaches, overwhelming fatigue and constant insomnia. Especially when dozing, he was on a hair trigger. If Farrah rose at night, she sometimes didn’t return to bed for fear that her husband might think she was an enemy and attack her. Instead, she’d spend the rest of the night on the couch.
For a woman who had been functioning as a single mom and was now eager to resume her former married life, all this was devastating. And it got worse. Farrah would tell her husband things, and then he would repeatedly forget — and reproach her for not telling him. He was distracted, withdrawn and unhelpful, and he repeatedly let her down.
“Our marriage was at real risk at this point,” Richards says. “We got to a point where we thought about separating.”
Yet it became increasingly apparent that the problem wasn’t that Richards was a jerk. It was that he had a war injury, an invisible one.
It’s often said that traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, which Richards’s doctors also diagnosed, are the signature wounds of the Iraq and Afghan wars. That’s partly because of the strains of repeated combat tours and partly because the enemy now relies more on bombs than bullets.
These factors suggest an answer to a continuing mystery: Why is suicide among soldiers and veterans more common now? Data collection has been poor, but several studies suggest that suicides among Vietnam veterans were not elevated. And traditionally, suicide rates among military personnel were lower than among civilians. Yet that has changed in the last decade, perhaps because of the increased time that today’s troops have spent in combat and how common explosions — and resulting concussions — have become in war zones.
OF the 100 soldiers under Richards, about 90 were hit by at least one bomb blast, and one Stryker crew was hit five times, Richards says. Yet few received significant medical treatment or were pulled out of harm’s way to protect them from a repeat concussion.
Richards himself didn’t receive any thorough examination or prompt diagnosis, even though he sought help from a series of doctors and counselors. He and Farrah just knew that something was wrong with his mind — and the intellectual toll became clearer when the Army sent him to Georgetown University to earn a graduate degree. The once brilliant scholar found that his brain just didn’t function properly.
“The paper is disappointing,” Professor Nancy Bernkopf Tucker commented on one of his term papers, on China. “Parts are not coherent and overall it is not effective. It is not well written and it is sloppy. Of greatest significance is the lack of analysis.”
Tucker told me that she recalled Richards well. “I remember him partly because I liked him so much,” she said. “He never told me about his background, and all I saw was someone not living up to his potential.”
Richards agreed with her comments on his work. His pure reasoning capacity is unimpaired, but his memory and ability to concentrate are faulty. In effect, he is a brilliant man tracking his cognitive deterioration.
After stumbling along to complete his Georgetown degree, Richards moved to West Point two years ago to take up a teaching position. He was elated to be teaching there — but he found himself losing his train of thought in class. He couldn’t read more than a few pages at a time. Richards saw that students were looking at him questioningly, trying to figure out what was wrong.
“It hurts, it’s humiliating,” he said. “I was always thinking maybe this is just something psychological — I’m an Army guy, I can get over this.” It was at this time, three years after the concussions in Iraq, that military physicians finally gave Richards a diagnosis of traumatic brain injury. Meanwhile, the headaches, the insomnia, the fatigue and the concentration problems grew worse, and he was embarrassed that medication for the headaches led him to put on 45 pounds.
Realizing that he wasn’t cutting it as an instructor, Richards asked in March to be relieved of his teaching duties. After a battery of physical and psychiatric tests, including a scan that found eight lesions in his brain tissue, the Army confirmed that he was disabled. He is retiring this month.
“Leaving the Army is the hardest thing I ever did,” he told me, and he seemed near tears.
Sometimes Richards is optimistic and imagines that he can find a new career — “if I get smart again,” as he puts it. But then reality sets in, often in the form of an agonizing headache. As we sat together in their living room, Farrah gently dismissed the idea of Ben’s working and said that she can’t even trust him to look after the toddler. Ben bit his lip and nodded slowly. “I’m basically unemployable,” he said.
Ben and Farrah found that they could no longer afford to live near West Point, so they have just moved to Iowa to be near Farrah’s parents. The couple’s marital strains seem mended, and Farrah says that now that she understands that her husband is suffering from a war wound, she is committed to seeing him through.
“Farrah is an amazing lady to stick through this,” Ben told me. “I am not sure who is having a harder time with T.B.I., me or my wife. In many ways, I am different from the man she married.”
Countless spouses, parents and children of returning troops are struggling with similar challenges. Spouses often complain that the military treats them particularly poorly, and rarely communicates adequately. “They’ll be like, ‘your husband was briefed on that.’ ” Farrah said. “And I say, ‘well, my husband can’t remember that briefing.’ ”
Compounding the stress, the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs are vastly overburdened by the mental health demands of returning soldiers. And that’s not just the view of the troops but also of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
“This system is going to be overwhelmed,” he said at a Congressional hearing last month. “Let’s not kid anybody. We’re looking at a system — it’s already overwhelmed.”
Panetta said that the “epidemic” of military suicide was “one of the most frustrating problems” he has faced as defense secretary. Obama talked about the challenge of military suicides as early as the 2008 campaign, and his administration deserves modest credit for (inadequate) steps to improve mental health care. Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, told me that the military had made progress in screening and treating traumatic brain injury and mental health, so that a soldier would be more likely to get help today than five years ago, when Richards suffered his blast injuries.
“We’re light-years more advanced now in terms of how we approach these problems and what we teach troops about getting help,” he said. In particular, blast injuries are tracked and treated more rigorously, he said, but he acknowledged that more work needed to be done.
Grim experiences like the one Richards endured might create an opening for Mitt Romney, but he isn’t taking it. As a governor and candidate, he has had a weak record on veterans, and he hasn’t shown leadership on the issue. He managed to speak to the Veterans of Foreign Wars last month without addressing veterans’ issues in a substantive way.
In any case, my take is that whatever political leaders say in Washington, and whatever directives emerge from the Pentagon, not nearly enough is changing on the ground. Mental health still isn’t the priority it should be. Just about every soldier or veteran I’ve talked to finds that in practice the mental health system is clogged with demands, and soldiers and veterans are falling through the cracks. Returning soldiers aren’t adequately screened, diagnosis and treatment of traumatic brain injury are still haphazard, and there hasn’t been nearly enough effort to change the warrior culture so that getting help is smart rather than sissy.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness recently offered an idea to help change this culture: the armed forces should award Purple Hearts for invisible, psychological wounds. That might help ease the stigma and would underscore that medical problems are real even if they are inside the head. The alliance also recommended that commanders be held accountable for preventable suicides.
While the challenges are acute for those on active duty, they often become even greater when troops take off their uniforms and become veterans seeking services from the hugely overburdened Veterans Affairs Department. Ben and Farrah have found it immensely difficult to get reliable information from the V.A. about what benefits they can count on. Richards says that in 11 phone calls, he has heard different stories every time.
“The V.A. is an abomination,” he said. “You see that hole in the wall?” He pointed at what looked like a rat hole. “That’s when I threw the phone after someone at V.A. hung up on me.”
None of this is a surprise. The V.A. says that veterans wait an average of eight months to get an initial decision on the claims they file. When service members seek to retire for medical reasons, the process takes an average of 396 days. Eric Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, notes that the V.A. processes more claims each year than it did before, but that the number of new claims surges by an even greater amount. The upshot is that the V.A. steps up its game but still gets further behind.
Shinseki notes some areas of progress — the number of homeless veterans seems to have fallen significantly — and he points to new systems and hiring intended to make the system function better. The number of V.A. mental health staff members has risen from 13,000 in 2005 to more than 20,000 today, he said.
At a time when nearly half of veterans returning from battle file disability claims, it’s fair to wonder whether word hasn’t spread that service members can claim some vague mental health ailment, like post-traumatic stress disorder, and get a paycheck from the government. The V.A. approves roughly half of claims, but the difficulty of diagnosis of mental health ailments means that they may not always be the legitimate ones. We may be getting the worst of all worlds: fraudulent claims approved, while legitimate ones are unrecognized or unconscionably delayed.
“The V.A. certainly doesn’t care,” says Jim Strickland, who runs the V.A. Watchdog Web site. “The very institution that should be at the forefront of caring for vets is dead last.” The Web site declares: “This country is capable of drafting you, putting you in boot camp, teaching you to kill someone, and then putting you in a war zone within six months. So why can’t they process a claim that fast?”
The same military that lavishes attention on its drones and aircraft carriers seems to take its people for granted. Stryker vehicles are refurbished, but not the men who operate them. The military health insurance won’t cover some of the treatments that doctors recommended for Richards.
All this is unforgivable, but it’s also shortsighted. The military’s most valuable assets aren’t its Strykers or tanks, but the highly trained troops inside them. When a soldier is harmed by repeat concussions, hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in training are squandered. And shoddy treatment of returning soldiers will undermine recruitment and retention in the future.
I asked Ben and Farrah why they agreed to tell their story and share medical and personal files, some of which detail Ben’s deterioration to a degree that is almost humiliating. “I regard this as my residual duty,” he replied. He thinks that he let his soldiers down by letting them return to action after suffering concussions, and he wants to atone by helping to call attention to a system that fails so many soldiers and veterans.
Farrah is scathing about what she sees as the failure of the Army and V.A. to support the troops. She adds, “Our leaders, political and military, have not been honest with people about the cost of the war.”
As for Ben, he’s not nearly as harsh. It’s clear that he still adores the Army, and he is less bitter than wistful.
“I’m extremely proud of what I did in Iraq,” he told me. “I recognize that this was a risk that I voluntarily accepted.” Many others have suffered far worse injuries, he notes, or are suffering alone without the soul mate he has in Farrah.
Both Farrah and Ben wish that his injury were more obvious. If he were in a wheelchair, neighbors would think of him as a hero, instead of as perhaps a malingering crackpot.
“I’d trade a leg for this in a heartbeat,” Ben said. “If all I was missing was a leg, I’d be a stud. And if I’d lost a leg, I’d be able to stay in the Army. That’s all I want to do.” He summed up his future: “it comes to failure.”
But that’s flat wrong. In speaking out with brutal candor about his injury and decline, Maj. Ben Richards exemplifies courage and leadership. He’s not damaged goods, but a hero. Maybe, if our leaders are listening, one of his last remaining dreams is still achievable: that his story will help win better treatment for so many others like him.
Now here’s Mr. Bruni:
It’s easy to be cynical about the Olympics: about the runaway commercialism; about the jingoism that so many countries bring to the games; about NBC. Definitely about NBC. Its breathless degree of fake suspense during prime time broadcasts has been a silly mockery of our wired ways, and too many on-the-spot interviews with athletes redefined dippy. How do you feel? Jubilant if you’ve medaled, crushed if you haven’t and really, really tired. Fill in the blanks.
But you know what? It’s just as easy to be sappy about the Olympics. In fact it’s a whole lot easier. Because for all their flaws and frustrations, they’ve been a phenomenal spectacle. More than that, they’ve been a phenomenal inspiration, in precisely the ways that they were supposed to be, during a season when we needed the uplift. Amid bullets in Colorado and Wisconsin, vitriol on the campaign trail, ominously scorching heat and serious questions about whether we can and will rise to the challenges before us, the Olympics have affirmed that human potential is just about infinite and that the human soul is good. They’ve presented two solid weeks of parables, most of which underscored the great rewards possible when great risk is taken and the prospect of glory on the far side of sacrifice.
Gabby Douglas gave us a lesson in all of that. I can’t quite let go of her smile or her story. Four years ago, at the age of 12, she unsuccessfully begged her mother, Natalie Hawkins, to allow her to leave their home in Virginia and train in Iowa, which seemed so distant and exotic that Hawkins once joked: “Are there people in Iowa? There’s just corn.”
Corn, that is, and a world-renowned coach who knows a thing or two about harvesting Olympic gold. Douglas joined forces with him when she was 14, and her mother finally consented to her wishes, placing her in the care of an Iowa family whom Douglas didn’t yet know, in a town where a black girl was bound to stand out. Many nights, Douglas has said, she cried herself to sleep. But she had this dream. And the only path to it, she felt certain, was through those cornfields.
The Olympics have reminded us that any grand achievement begins with a leap of faith and draws lavishly from a wellspring of pure confidence. And that what has been accomplished to date has no bearing on what can be accomplished in time.
The Dutch gymnast Epke Zonderland took to the air to prove as much, soaring above and swooping below the high bar during his gold-medal showstopper, while Michael Phelps took to the water. Before Phelps no man had won the same Olympic swimming event three times in a row. In London he did that. Before Phelps no man or woman had ever collected more than 18 Olympic medals. In London he did that, too. Then he collected a 20th, a 21st, a 22nd. All but four are gold. By multiple measures and by far, he is the most decorated Olympian ever.
Mosts. Firsts. London brimmed with them, and they transcended mere trivia. They charted the march of social progress, marked the toppling of boundaries. For the first time, the American Olympic team had more women than men. For the first time, every national team included at least one woman, and that was because three Muslim countries that had never before sent a female athlete to the Olympics finally did so.
One of those countries was Saudi Arabia, and one of its two female competitors was Sarah Attar, who ran the 800 meters with her legs covered, her arms covered, her hair covered. At the start she beamed at the crowd, her smile an acknowledgment of history in the making. And though she lagged far behind everyone else in her heat, the crowd roared louder and louder as she approached the finish line, then gave her a standing ovation. It was as if she had set a world record. Then again, she had.
There was similar applause for Oscar Pistorius, the South African man who also challenged precedent and also defied limits, running the 400 meters on two prosthetic legs. He made it as far as the semifinals, after which the Grenadian runner Kirani James, who would go on to win the gold, swapped nametags with him. It was a gesture of the utmost respect and a poignant illustration of the kind of fellowship that athletic competition at its very best can foster.
For an illustration of the friendships it can forge, we had Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings, who finished what they had decided would be their last Olympics together with a third consecutive gold in beach volleyball. At the net they were merciless. Away from it they were mush, taking tearful stock of their amazing adventure over the years and eloquently communicating just how much strength two people can wring from each other and how much support they can provide.
“I will never leave her side,” May-Treanor, sitting next to Walsh Jennings, told Matt Lauer, adding that “that’s what this Olympics signified — was the journey off the court together.” Walsh Jennings, herself misty, put a hand on her friend’s wrist. Medals are the least of what volleyball has given these two.
From the Olympics we got validation that sports aren’t just an engine of fame and a means to riches but a training ground for the rest of life, and that they can make champions proud without making them vain. Another smile I can’t let go of is Missy Franklin’s, toothy and triumphant, because I got the sense that the joy in it came not so much from besting her rivals in the pool but from meeting the grandest expectations that others had for her and that she had for herself.
As she won the first of four golds, in the 100-meter backstroke, NBC showed her high school classmates back in Colorado huddled in front of an enormous TV screen. They went bonkers when she touched the wall ahead of everyone else. That reaction helped to explain a huge decision that she’s made: rather than cash in on endorsement deals that could be worth hundreds of thousands, she’ll preserve her amateur status so that she can swim for the team at whichever college she attends in the fall of 2013.
There will presumably be opportunities for money down the road. There won’t be the same chance to bring excitement to her campus and play a special part on it. Those experiences can’t be measured in dollars. And by choosing to savor them, she has something to teach us all.