Knowing When To Go

Reading the reams of articles about the child sex-abuse scandal at Penn State, I’m reminded of various dictators around the world I’ve covered/known. I’m thinking of those who started out as saviours in their respective countries and did much good–only to succumb to the seduction of power and their own vanity, clinging to their offices in ways that undid their legacies. The similarities between them and Joe Paterno, the Penn State football coach, are striking.

Robert Mugabe, the despotic leader of Zimbabwe, and Alberto Fujimori, the former president of Peru, are prime examples. Mugabe spent decades, starting in the 1960s, fighting the white-minority ruled government in what was then known as Rhodesia. (Which included a ten-year-stint in prison for his efforts.) By the time the war ended in 1979, he was seen by many as a hero and elected prime minister of the newly independent nation. His call for reconciliation among the formerly warring parties was hailed as a model for the continent. Mugabe put much effort into what the World Bank called “human resource investments and support for smallholder agriculture;” as a result, by 1990, Zimbabwe had a lower infant mortality rate, higher adult literacy and higher school enrolment rate than average for developing countries.

If he had stopped after, say, 20 years in office and stepped down, today Mugabe would be remembered as a kind of George Washington to his nation. Instead, as the years passed and he struggled to remain in power, his rule became one of economic mismanagement, corruption and brutal repression. In 2000, Mugabe embarked on a mad land grab, seizing white-owned farms without compensation and “redistributing” them,  mostly to his family, political cronies and military officers. Elections in the past decade have been marked by vote-rigging, rampant intimidation and violence. The impact on the country has been stunningly ruinous. Zimbabwe’s GDP plummeted 40% in the last decade–this, in a country that was considered Africa’s bread basket. Life expectancy for Zimbabwean males is now 37 years; for females, it is 34 years.

In Peru, Alberto Fujimori came into office in 1990 amid staggering hyperinflation and widespread terrorism. He enacted as series of draconian economic reforms that revitalized Peru, set the country on a path to robust growth and and brought it back into the global economy. To combat terrorism, he granted the military broad powers to arrest suspected insurgents and try them in secret military courts with few legal rights. (Fujimori contended that these measures were justified because judges feared reprisals against them and their families.) To many of his countrymen, he–like Mugabe–was a hero for returning Peru to economic stability and ending the 15-year reign of terror by the Shining Path guerrillas. This, despite staging, with the help of the military, a kind of coup in 1992 that shut down the congress and purged the judiciary

If Fujimori had left office in 2000–as required by the new constitution he put in place–he would be remembered for his signature achievements of bringing prosperity and peace to the country. Instead, he got his supporters in Congress to “reinterpret” the constitution, which allowed him to run for a third term. Shortly after the election, which was widely seen as rigged, Fujimori fled to Japan amid a corruption scandal. He was ultimately arrested during a visit to Chile in 2005 and extradited to Peru; he is now serving a 25-year jail sentence for human rights violations, bribery and embezzlement, among other things.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Joe Paterno is even vaguely analogous to either Mugabe or Fujimori. But the trajectory of his 46-year career follows a similarly disturbing arc. Here was a college football coach who broke the mold, who endowed two professorships at Penn State in the humanities to demonstrate his commitment to academics, who helped raise money to quadruple the size of the library, who benched star players for missing class. And he won football games. He became an iconic, revered figure on campus and among Penn State’s tens of thousands of alumni.

And if he had left, say, 15 years ago–at the not-unvenerable age of 70–his would be a magnificent and singular legacy. Instead he stayed on, secure in a cocoon where the money and prestige that his football team brought to the university made him, quite literally, untouchable. It has been reported that both the former president of Penn State, Graham Spanier, and a member of the university’s board of trustees tried to induce Paterno to retire in 2004–to no avail. Perhaps it was his desire to become the winningest coach in Division I college football, which he achieved in October of this year. Or it was simply a failure of imagination, an inability to fathom a life beyond the adulation and spotlight.

Thus, as arguably the most powerful figure at Penn State, Paterno ignored or dismissed stories of serial child molestation and rape by his former assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, that allegedly continued for years. Those around him and in the university’s administration, whether out of reverence or fear, went along with it. In doing so, Paterno inadvertently dragged the university into a systemic cover- up of what appears to be the worst scandal in the history of collegiate athletics. And still he refused to step down, even when the full horror of the allegationscame to light. Instead, he issued a press release stating that he would retire at the end of the season–there were still several football games to be played–a move that finally forced the Penn State’s trustees to fire him.   (And set a mob of clueless Penn State students to rioting.)

It was an ignominious end to a man who, like so many others in positions of power before him, had stayed too long.