. . . And Nancy

March 09, 1994|By Bob Somerby

NANCY Kerrigan grew up in Stoneham, Mass., a medium-sized town a few miles north of Boston.

But these days she must feel as though she's living in old Salem Village, given the witch hunt to which she's been subjected.

Unless you were a figure skating junkie, you hadn't heard or thought much about Ms. Kerrigan until early January. Then she was criminally assaulted in a Detroit arena, an attack that easily could have left her in a wheelchair.

In the aftermath of the assault, Ms. Kerrigan made no comments at all about her skating opponent Tonya Harding, who may yet prove to have been directly involved in planning the attack.

Upon her arrival at the Olympics in Norway, Ms. Kerrigan pointedly said she regretted the wide media attention she was receiving, as it detracted from coverage of the other Olympic athletes. She went about her business, overcoming enormous pressure to win a silver medal that many observers thought should have been gold.

But now, in part because she has been insufficiently deferential to Mickey Mouse, the fickle busybodies of Salem Village have decided the time has come to judge Nancy Kerrigan. Incredibly, she and Tonya Harding have switched places in the media spotlight; Nancy's the bad girl and Tonya's now the good girl.

And the ugliness of their assaults has been matched only by the JTC complete insignificance of the petty events for which Ms. Kerrigan (read Hester Prynne) has received public dunking.

For example, to USA Today's resident character analyst, Bryan Burwell, Ms. Kerrigan is "at best a petulant brat, ill-equipped for the public stage she was thrust upon." (Mr. Burwell was magnanimous enough to note, later on in the column, that she is "not necessarily a totally vacuous airhead.")

Folk adviser Ann Oldenburg advises Ms. Kerrigan, in the same paper: "When you wish upon a star, maybe you should act like one."

And the Washington Post's Kim Masters asks -- I think shockingly -- the question that apparently will be asked of all attractive, achieving younger women who can in any way be distinguished from David Letterman's mom: "The big question began to form on the public's lips: Is Nancy Kerrigan a bitch?"

The answer, of course, is no, but don't expect the media puritans to want to hear it. It's too much fun to take part in Ms. Kerrigan's public dunking, however silly the "offenses" with which she's been charged.

And given the level of trashing Nancy Kerrigan has received, her offenses are nothing if not silly.

Is it surprising that someone 24 years old might find it "corny" to parade with Mickey Mouse? Does everyone in America have to be Willard Scott?

Is it surprising that an Olympic medalist might be catty and slightly bitter in the immediate aftermath of the narrowest possible loss?

Is it surprising that a newcomer to the world stage might not understand that all remarks can be picked up by open mikes and played back by broadcasters with nothing of substance to clutter their minds? I seem to recall this happening to a couple of novices named Reagan and Clinton. We're surprised it can happen to Nancy Kerrigan?

The media assaults on Nancy Kerrigan say far more about the character of her critics -- and the way the press in America operates in the '90s -- than they say about Ms. Kerrigan. They echo the ugly slash-and-trash tactics that increasingly damage public debate, from Washington on down (or up).

They say you'd have to be crazy to run for president, given the way the press and public will treat you. To which we can now add: You'd have to be crazy to want to succeed publicly at anything, given the way the media will pull you down.

Bob Somerby is a professional comedian who lives in Baltimore.

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