King Killers: The Art of Personal and Political Assassination

In the men's work in which I engaged for many years, we called them "king-killers." These are men--or women, why not?--so consumed by greed or envy, ambition, insecurity or fear of weakness, that they are driven to bring down the one whom they have chosen, or the one who stands up for leadership. They tend to show up, like their cousins, the wolves, or like sharks in the ocean, when they smell blood; or when they sense weakness or hesitation. Then they attack in swarms...

From many, I choose but two notable current examples: the one-time leader of the Tour de France and the current "leader of the free world."

I hold no particular beef for Lance Armstrong, though I confess that I would like to believe him to be real. He may, or may not have been aided in his multiple Tour victories by performance-enhancing drugs. I hope not, but I do know that these drugs are prevalent not only in cycling but in all professional sports. I deplore their use. It's a sad fact that, today, we are unable to trust a winner--whether track star, tennis ace, home-run slugger, or cyclist. Winning by cheating is not winning. But this is not about doping, nor even particularly about Lance Armstrong. It's about king-killing, about the desire to bring the man down.

In Armstrong's case, the blood was smelled early in this year's race. The first cut came even before the 2010 Tour de France with accusations from a former team-mate, Floyd Landis, timed to coincide with Armstrong's participation in the Tour of California. When the--let's face it--aging champion fell and abandoned that race with injuries, the Schadenfreude was already evident in the press. More recently, the New York Times reporter on the Tour de France chose to drag out the accusation again on the first day of this year's race, and has reported almost daily since then on the federal investigation.

It was soon clear that Armstrong would be unable to win to 2010 Tour. When the disasters came--he crashed on several occasions in the early stages--we began to hear delightedly malicious comments from some quarters: he was too old, he could no longer stay upright on his bike, he had given up too early, or had not given up when he should have done and stayed too late... After the sixteenth stage, when he chose to ride with familiar aggression in order to take some small victory away from his last Tour, and after his still impressive display of strength in the climbs clearly provided leadership for others in the stage leaders' breakaway, the New York Times banner headline read: "In What May Have Been a Final Push For Old Times' Sake, Armstrong Fails." Not inaccurate, but pointedly phrased. The French press, too, long inimical to the man who stole their Tour, has reportedly been happy to pile on.

Let me say again, it's not my business to defend Armstrong, nor does he need any defense from me. What's of interest to me is to take note of the attack. The attack on Barack Obama is something else. I have a stake in this young President. I voted for him, I want to see him bring his campaign promises to fruition. I believe in what he stands for. In fact, I myself stand for the most part to the left of where he does--understanding his need to hold the center, out of political necessity--but I'll take what I can get.

Once again, however, the sharp knives are out; the king-killers abound, and to judge by his falling poll numbers, their attacks are taking a toll. They come from left as well as right on virtually every issue: the economy, the conduct of the wars, health care and financial reform, his choice of officers and judicial appointments--even, ironically, for our first African American in the Oval Office, race. The unprecedented speed and spread of the Internet and associated technologies facilitates the attacks: a blog entry, a YouTube video, even a casual email can set off a nation-wide storm and promulgate its progress. The memory banks are immeasurable and accessed with incredible ease. No President has ever faced the challenges that confront those of the 21st century. No king-killer has ever had such a vast array of effective weapons within such easy reach.

It's a fine line, certainly, between legitimate and necessary criticism and what I'm talking about. Let it be noted that I personally am far less than delighted with progress toward those goals Obama laid out in his campaign. But we must know how to make a usable distinction between the two, and I fear that we too often fail to exercise the judiciousness that is required of us to do that. Meanwhile, the welter of attacks and dissatisfactions increases daily, along with the all-too real disasters and the teacup tempests, despite the fact that many of them soon prove to be utterly without foundation in reality or truth--as in the latest Fox News-generated kerfuffle around Shirley Sherrod at the Department of Agriculture. The calculation is that if enough mud is thrown, some of it will stick.

Obama, certainly, like Armstrong, does not need my pity or defense. I am amazed, in fact, by his ability to rise above the pettiness that swirls around him, maintaining a voice of solid reason--when we get to hear it--in the cacophony of irrational anger, and sometimes the hatred hurled in his direction. The man is not perfect. He is a politician. Surprise! And no matter the damage they intend, if we listen carefully, these king-killers succeed mostly in betraying themselves and their own agendas. Examine what they say and how they say it and you'll find that most often they are projecting their own worst qualities--their timidity, their incompetence, their racism and hypocrisy, their political partisanship--on to the object of their scorn.

When I hear the negative judgment of a king-killer, I try to remind myself to turn that judgment around and apply it to its source, to see whether the indictment is not more about the accuser than the accused. I find this to be a useful and reliable test of the difference between sheer malice, for personal gain, and sound critical judgment.