Even if you have zero sympathy or tolerance for Armstrong—and that would be me—the self-deluding Corsello nakedly animates that fundamental piece of the American character that makes us want to suspend disbelief well past the point we should. We want to believe in magic, improbable comebacks, and aesthetically perfect heroes. We hold on to the frontier ideal of white hats vanquishing the black hats. If there’s one fixture in the American firmament—no matter how sweeping the other changes in cultural fashion—it is cartoon superheroes. Nearly 75 years after the first Superman comic, he and his brethren are bigger than ever, the masters of all media, analog and digital. We are always waiting for Superman and quick to assume there’s a new one just around the corner. When one turns out to be a fake, we immediately start looking for the next.
Perhaps it was always thus. Herman Melville closed down his career as a novelist with his dark satire The Confidence-Man just before the Civil War. When F. Scott Fitzgerald published his romantic yet cautionary Ur-text for great American charlatans, The Great Gatsby, in 1925, the country was still reeling from a national shock that mirrors many of those of our own day. Warren Harding, a beloved (and handsome) president whose sudden death in office in 1923 produced a national outpouring of grief worthy of Lincoln, had been posthumously exposed as an enabler of White House corruption on a staggering scale. But we picked ourselves up and have fallen for countless frauds like Harding—and Gatsby—ever since. We can be as easily fooled by small-scale hoaxes like “balloon boy” as we are by big-time crooks like the lionized Enron CEO Ken Lay. Even fictional impostors, from Professor Marvel to Harold Hill to Dick Whitman (a.k.a. Don Draper), are beloved lodestars in our national mythology. So while it would be nice to believe that we’ve learned something from our mistakes and would not be sucked in by the next Petraeus or JoePa or Edwards or Armstrong, whom are we kidding? This is America, and, if Broadwell got anything right, it’s that once Americans fall for a guy, we just can’t stop ourselves from going all in.