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Nothing Succeeds Like Failure

Genius is the measure of an individual’s ability to convince the right people.

Even taking the mutability of that word, “genius,” into account—what once meant divine instructional spirit and later referred primarily to the accomplishments of men of science, and is now applicable to virtually anyone with an unusually developed avocation, someone who knows a surprising number of knock-knock jokes or can mimic the voices of several presidents—this definition holds true. The ancient oracles were only oracles because they were believed; Freud was influential because a professional class was provoked, and ultimately, persuaded; Robin Williams’ career continues only because his logorrheic free-association is regarded by a significant segment of the comedy-consuming population as inspired.

But recent investigations suggest that the prophetic priestesses of Delphi were likely hallucinating—as either the result of purposeful ingestion of organic compounds (specially prepared thornberry seeds), or due to the fact that their temple was situated above a fault through which intoxicating “vapours” escaped; Freud has been widely thrashed as, at best, a sloppy scientist and, at worst, a liar (and, yes, there was the cocaine); and Robin Williams . . . Look, I’ve still got fond memories of that first HBO special and, I’ll admit, The Fisher King was fun, but my mom’s a special-education teacher—I’ve seen funnier.

Times change, audiences change and reputations change. Yesterday’s genius is today’s dimly remembered crackpot. Flip through the pages of history and you’re sure to find, for example, a preeminent phrenologist, water diviner or rainmaker. And, of even more recent Great Men and Women we must have second thoughts, too—even when we have nostalgic affinity and respect.

Take F. Scott Fitzgerald as a case in point: One of his more famous pronouncements—a poignant one seemingly justified by his own experience—was that “there are no second acts in American lives.” The writer of The Great Gatsby, the archetypal Great American Novel, died an alcoholic, convinced that his literary legacy was complete obscurity. Thing is, he was totally mistaken. His own posthumous “career” experienced such a renewal that one critic has called it more “resurrection” than revival. More to the point, though, is that Fitzgerald was no sociologist. His postulation of an inherently unforgiving American public, one addicted to novelty, fails to account for our love of the prodigal, of the loser. America loves a comeback.

All the where-are-they-now-style entertainments available—from the cable channels to the big-box bookstores, from Behind the Music and E! True Hollywood Story to Monica Lewinsky’s new reality-TV show, from G. Gordon Liddy’s Will to Jose Conseco’s upcoming tell-all—appeal to this curious combination of hero worship and schadenfreude. We cannot praise the cloistered virtue; we like our celebrities—and who else, these days, is popularly regarded a genius?—alternatingly reprobate and repentant. Create a specialized niche within reality-based programming, a mea culpa TV network, and you’d have a surefire hit. We’re apology addicts.

The recent furor over The New York Times reporter Jayson Blair—an acknowledged plagiarist and fraud—will, no doubt, fit this scheme. As the pundits wring their hands and sound off about the irreparable damage that Blair’s actions have inflicted on the community of black journalists, on the reputation of the Times, on the future of affirmative-action programs, on the public’s trust of the media in general, Blair is laughing his stigma off.

In an interview with The New York Observer, Blair crowed that he “had managed to fool some of the most brilliant people in journalism.” The corrections to his story about the homecoming of captured Pvt. Jessica Lynch that the Times was forced to run were so sweeping Blair himself found it funny: “ . . . [my] description was so far off from the reality . . . I couldn’t stop laughing.”

Media critics of all stripes will have fun rubbing the Times’ nose in this, and Blair could easily promote himself as a cunning prankster who purposefully set out to dispel the myth of an objective, reliable press, or to puncture the pretension of the nation’s leading daily. But he’s gone one better.

Blair concedes that he lied and filed fiction as news (fabricating on-the-spot reportage from distant datelines while holed up in his Brooklyn apartment), but he claims that the deception was the result of personal demons and that, at the time, he was battling a substance-abuse problem. Blair, amazingly, did fool some of the most brilliant people in journalism; and now, with this sob story, he’s going straight for the public at large.

“I was either going to kill myself or I was going to kill the journalist persona,” Blair told the Observer. “So Jayson Blair the human being could live, Jayson Blair the journalist had to die.”

According to Newsweek magazine, Jayson Blair the human being has signed with literary agent David Vigliano and is currently negotiating book and movie deals reported to be in the six-figure range. Jayson Blair the human being will undoubtedly be interviewed by Walters or Couric or Winfrey, pitching a story of ambition, societal and organizational pressure, doubt, general angst gussied up as existential crisis—and ultimate self-recognition and metaphorical rebirth. And we’ll eat it up.

Make no mistake: This kid’s a genius.

—John Rodat

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