By Robert J. Samuelson
The Washington Post
Thursday, October 18, 2007; Page A25
A great strength of American society is the drive to succeed — well, not just to succeed but to do better than anyone else; to be a star, a tycoon, an authority, a power, a celebrity or a leader; to be admired, respected, feared or obeyed more than your peers. It is the belief in these possibilities that motivates countless Americans to strive for excellence, to work hard, and to search for new discoveries and inventions. As for one of the great weaknesses of American society, see all of the above.
It is an enduring paradox of the American condition. There is a point at which ambition and the determination to succeed, which generally serve us well, turn destructive, corrupting and dishonest. Success becomes its own god. Winning is what matters; the methods or consequences count little or not at all.
The latest reminder of the paradox comes from three recent cases: Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots; runner Marion Jones; and trial lawyer William Lerach. Belichick had opponents’ defensive signals videotaped, contrary to explicit National Football League rules; Jones admitted taking illegal drugs around the time of the 2000 Olympics; and Lerach pleaded guilty to illegally hiring plaintiffs as fronts for filing suits against companies. Belichick got off fairly easy (a $500,000 fine), but the others did not. Jones has returned five medals (three gold, two bronze) won at the Sydney Olympics, and Lerach faces $8 million of penalties and at least a year in jail.