Shame Old, Shame Old
Brief reflections on a culture that no longer judges
Shame died 56 years ago this fall. Appropriately enough, its finale occurred in Washington, D.C. There, in 1959, a pale, drawn, thirtysomething professor appeared before a congressional subcommittee. Its members had been investigating America’s top-rated show, Twenty-One. That summer, the prof had spoken to the press, vigorously denying rumors that the show was fixed. Now, as America watched, he went into reverse. Charles Van Doren, scion of a famous literary family, stellar student of music, astrophysics, and literature, testified that he had won his six-figure prize money by cheating. Week after week, with answers supplied by the show’s management, he acted (and sometimes overacted) the part of a polymath who knew everything about prizefighting, science, show business, royalty—name the subject, he was its master.
It had all been a lie, Van Doren admitted: “I flew too high on borrowed wings.” In doing so, he had been “foolish, naïve, prideful, and avaricious.” Overnight, the celebrity who had made the cover of Time, who had been offered positions in daytime and nighttime TV, who had followed his father by becoming one of the most popular and highly regarded teachers at Columbia University, was persona non grata. The press moved on to fresher dirt. NBC didn’t want him on or off camera. Aware that he was an embarrassment to his employer, assistant professor Charles Van Doren resigned from Columbia. He did not return until his son graduated from the same university 23 years later.
Unemployed and anonymous, Van Doren and his wife and small children moved to Chicago, where he took a mid-level job at the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Grateful for this anonymity, he never again sought the spotlight. When Robert Redford first began making Quiz Show, the 1994 film about the scandal, one of his producers dangled $100,000 as a consultant fee. Van Doren ripped up the contract.
Some five decades after the famous confessional, such behavior seems as antiquated as black-and-white TV. Like sports and politics, scandal has become a form of entertainment. No one is embarrassed for long—indeed, revelations of misconduct often seem to burnish a career. Woody Allen’s seduction of, and later marriage to, his adopted daughter didn’t stop his productivity or keep his fans away. Basketball announcer Marv Albert, political consultant Dick Morris, and actor Hugh Grant all got themselves involved in tacky and widely publicized sexual affairs. After a pause, they were back at their jobs. Even Mike Tyson, who served jail time on a rape charge, bounced back to become the star of a biographical off-Broadway show.
Perhaps the biggest sinner of them all, Bill Clinton, 42nd president of the United States, was impeached for lying about his involvement with Monica Lewinsky. The accusations of extramarital capers and even sexual assault continue to follow him, but the country has long since given the prez a pass. His type has become one of the mainstays of romantic novels and films—the lovable rogue. Shame has no place in his lexicon, any more than it has in American life.
Today, if Charles Van Doren were to admit his involvement in a rigged television contest, he would undergo some superficial therapy, attend some carefully staged parties in New York and Hollywood, reveal all to Dr. Phil, sit for an interview with Ellen DeGeneres, and then edge back into the spotlight as a regular on Fox & Friends. In retrospect, America’s last victim of shame can be seen as a good man. Only his timing was bad.
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