Falling Up


In the last decade or so, I’ve been consistently amazed that so many Americans seem to succeed… by failing.


It’s not always clear failure but, often at least, people get rewarded without rising to the level we would expect to be required. Sometimes it’s about taking advantage of personal relationships while other times, it’s about public perception. Consider that attending (and re-attending) rehab has been the spark plug for dozens of careers in the entertainment industry even though addiction is often a career killer for average people.


Rod Blagojevich was a virtual nobody until he was caught trying to sell a Senate seat. Now he’s cashed in tremendously and has the kind of name recognition that most governors only dream of obtaining. Amazingly, Blago is not only getting rich but he’s still famous, not infamous. Whatthehell?


Harriet Miers almost joined the Supreme Court solely because she was George W. Bush’s close friend and counsel. She was widely viewed as incompetent and it was only the uniformity of this view that kept her from rising to a lifetime appointment interpreting America’s laws. Scary stuff.


Conan O’Brien seems the best current example of this phenomenon. Maybe he’s actually the ultimate late night talk show host and I just haven’t noticed… This week he’s been at the top of the media world having been rewarded with a brand new TBS show, overwhelming public affection and a second giant contract. All this, even though he was booted from his dream job to make way for Jay Leno’s return. NBC would never have made that move if Conan’s audience were as big as Jay’s so in the most direct sense, Conan’s show failed. What is it that could possibly have built so much buzz that Conan is now bigger than he’s ever been?


It seems as though we not only accept failure, we often reward it. Now, if I can only convince someone with clout that my career as a poet has been a disaster…




5 thoughts on “Falling Up

  1. You didn’t bite on the whole ‘leaked sex tape’ bit as well- Paris Hilton would likely still be a nobody without her strategic release.
    It certainly has something to do with our culture in general, but I do think the media bears a significant share of it, particularly their blurring and now complete obliteration of the line between journalism and entertainment.
    Conan was probably mis-cast in Leno’s role by NBC off the bat, so I think it’s hard to say he failed in a meaningful sense. He was too quirky for the white bread crowd, and the show was too tame for his own following.
    His numbers at TBS are expected to be significantly lower than they were at NBC, but TBS doesn’t have the same ratings expectations, plus as a bonus they’re more likely to let him run the show his own way.
    In the end the Conan story is more about the entrenchment of one of the big 3 networks in an era where those networks are increasingly irrelevant.


  2. p.s. I’d probably disagree with your take on Miers as well, in part because I’ve never heard any particular citations of her personal incompetence.
    But I do think it makes an interesting story about collective failure in a broader sense.
    Consider that her nomination was one of the first times Bush really laid out an olive branch across the aisle, since Miers’ nomination came from Harry Reid’s suggestion when Bush made the invite for him to make one.
    And perhaps it was also telling as one of the key moments where Bush had really cast off Cheney’s hypnosis.
    Anyway, the key here is that ultimately her nomination was crushed by the Republicans, for predominantly the same reasons that made her acceptable to the Dems in the first place – despite being largely conservative, she was on the record as supporting affirmative action, and it was suspected she would favor civil liberties for homosexuals and possibly uphold Roe v. Wade.
    Her direct judicial experience was certainly an issue, but that’s a far cry from incompetence. There has been some push from both sides of the aisle to expand the background of the SCOTUS.
    The right expresses this largely in terms of getting people who aren’t pointy-headed academics; and the left, as usual, has lots of thoughts in favor but no single, coherent message. Both Leahy and Specter didn’t necessarily support Miers per se, but they had advocated heavily for picking someone outside the ‘usual’ system.
    My sense of the Miers case is more that her nomination was scuttled primarily because of her few ‘left’ leanings -she’s almost certainly well left of Alito or Roberts- and the sense on the Republican side that they didn’t have to compromise.
    The notion that she wasn’t ‘qualified’ just made for the final nail in the coffin for the right in their war to scuttle a semi-moderate from their own side of the aisle.
    In that sense, I think the Republicans were “right” – some of those 5-4 decisions would certainly be breaking the other way if they had confirmed Miers instead of holding out for Alito.
    And perhaps it only cemented the sense in the Republican leadership that intransigence would buy them more in the long run than compromise. It certainly is playing out for them that way on tax cuts, health care, and so on.
    That whole process, to me, says a whole lot more of the politics of the last decade than it does about Miers.


  3. It may sound odd but I don’t know very much about the sex tape phenomenon! I just kind of missed that whole period. I might argue that the people who have become stars because of sex tapes actually have suceeded! It’s fame they want and since they don’t have traditionally marketable talents, they managed to get what they wanted in a different, but now viable, way.
    Conan was a failure in his NBC show in the most direct sense which is ratings. Whether he bears responsibility for that failure or not, he’s still the most substantial beneficiary. If I knew more about hedge fund types and CEOs, I’d probably argue they have been even more successful failures but I’ve avoided reading those articles. Not enough tears in my eyes.


  4. I strongly disagree on Miers. Certainly her politics were problematic to some on the right but her qualifications were very widely perceived as a joke. Almost immediately, folks on both sides argued that Miers was a friend pick, not a jurisprudence pick.
    When she worked for her big deal law firm, she was basically an organizing management figure, not a nose in the texts lawyer. I seem to remember that she had to re-submit answers to the pro forma legal questions she was asked during her confirmation warmup.
    All that being said, the politics always matter and I would not be surprised if her nomination were largely about optics and relationships. I imagine that the Dems would have been happy to tout her inexperience and lack of uh, is judicial acumen the phrase?) necessities, but the GOP was happy to do it for them.
    Thanks for giving me so much to think about!


  5. Hmmm…you may well be right on Miers – I just remember it that the opposition from the right on her politics came before the ‘revelation’ that she was unqualified.
    I was proposing the sex tape era as another example of ‘failure’ turned into success. At the time Hilton’s came out in particular, it was dreadfully shocking and her camp presented that it was leaked against her will. Since then evidence kinda suggests it was probably released with her knowledge. An odd twist on intentionally turning ‘failure’ (given Americans’ conflicted views on sex).
    If you are interested in ‘failure’ you should consider reading Kathryn Schultz’s ‘The Wrong Stuff’ series interviewing people about being wrong.
    The Ira Glass interview is the best imo, but there are quite a few good ones:


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