One could almost predict the desperately "current" New York Times
editor/columnist Frank Rich would devote his Sunday column to try and
make Balloon Boy an anti-Republican symbol of something or other, and
he doesn't disappoint.
The result, "In Defense of the 'Balloon Boy' Dad ," is even more silly than Rich's usual fare, playing devil's advocate for storm-chasing father Richard Heene. Rich found "some poignancy in [Heene's] determination to grab what he and many others see as among the last accessible scraps of the American dream....If Heene's balloon was empty, so were the toxic financial instruments, inflated by the thin air of unsupported debt, that cratered the economy he inhabits." Rich is being serious.
Certainly the "balloon boy" incident is a reflection of our time - much as the radio-induced "War of the Worlds" panic dramatized America's jitters on the eve of World War II, or the national preoccupation with the now-forgotten Congressman Gary Condit signaled America's pre-9/11 drift into escapism and complacency in the summer of 2001. But to see what "balloon boy" says about 2009, you have to look past the sentimental moral absolutes. You have to muster some sympathy for the devil of the piece, the Bad Dad.
Nine months into Obama's presidency, everything is still officially about Bush:
Next to the other hoaxes and fantasies that have been abetted by the news media in recent years, both the "balloon boy" and Chamber of Commerce ruses are benign. The Colorado balloon may have led to the rerouting of flights and the wasteful deployment of law enforcement resources. But at least it didn't lead the country into fiasco the way George W. Bush's flyboy spectacle on an aircraft carrier helped beguile most of the Beltway press and too much of the public into believing that the mission had been accomplished in Iraq.
None of this absolves Heene of blame for the damage he may have inflicted on the children he grotesquely used as a supporting cast in his schemes. But stupid he's not. He knew how easy it would be to float "balloon boy" when the demarcation between truth and fiction has been obliterated.
There's also some poignancy in his determination to grab what he and many others see as among the last accessible scraps of the American dream. As a freelance construction worker and handyman, he couldn't find much employment in an economy where construction is frozen and homeowners are more worried about losing their homes than fixing them. Once his appetite had been whetted by two histrionic appearances on "Wife Swap," an ABC reality program, it's easy to see why Heene would turn his life and that of his family into a nonstop audition for more turns in the big tent of the reality media circus.
If Heene's balloon was empty, so were the toxic financial instruments, inflated by the thin air of unsupported debt, that cratered the economy he inhabits. The press hyped both scams, and the public eagerly bought both. But between the bogus balloon and the banks' bubble, there's no contest as to which did the most damage to the country. The ultimate joke is that Heene, unlike the reckless gamblers at the top of Citigroup and A.I.G., may be the one with a serious shot at ending up behind bars.
- Clay Waters is the director of Times Watch , an MRC project tracking the New York Times.