Off with Their Heads!

Whatever happened to the public spanking?

You probably heard about the bizarre arrest of Maurice Clarett, a former NFL and now minor league football player. Columbus, Ohio, police busted him after running him off the highway. When they pried him out of his SUV, they found four loaded guns and a half-bottle of vodka. And he was wearing a bulletproof vest, while in the neighborhood of a guy who was supposed to testify against him in an earlier case. Yet Clarett’s coach, Jim Terry, demonstrating an unparalleled optimism, said, “I’ve seen far worse situations than this.” Worse than four guns, vodka and a vendetta? That must be some team.

Reading about Clarett got me thinking: No one takes a fall any more. The comeuppance, the public smack down—passé!

Look at power publicist Lizzie Grubman, who famously plowed her car into 16 people and then refused a Breath-a-lyzer. She topped that by reportedly stealing the husband of one of her employees. Yet her client list is brimming with respectable household names such as America Online, Barnes and Noble, and Gloria Estefan. Gloria Estefan?

Or take Kate Moss. When photos of her snorting a white powder hit the news, cosmetics company Rimmel London issued a statement that it was “shocked and dismayed … and was reviewing her contract.” And who’s modeling for them now? Miss Powder-Her-Nose. Moss also dates a guy who’s been arrested for assault, DUI, drug possession and burglary. Her lifestyle and judgment don’t matter one whit—she keeps custody of her 3-year-old, and is expected to earn a personal-best of $8.3 million in endorsements this year.

If I showed up on the cover of the Star-Bulletin, partying like Keith Richards, I doubt I’d get a raise. Moss, you see, is part of a protected species: the Teflon celebrity. Famous people have been sprayed with slippery, sparkly goo that allows the crap they get themselves into to slide right off.

illustration: Mike Austin

A scandal used to mean something—a felony conviction could end a career, and jail meant more than a new poncho and praise for your prison-slimmed figure. A woman on your Monkey Business stopped your candidacy. Now, no one slinks off in disgrace—they’re treated for “exhaustion” and appear on Oprah.

Hawai‘i’s first nonstick celeb was in the 1960s—con man Sammy Amalu. Amalu was suave, with an inexplicable British accent and a string of real estate hoaxes. His exploits earned him not only jail time, but notoriety in Time and Newsweek. But his reputation bounced back faster than his checks, and “Sam the Sham” landed a newspaper column while still behind bars. Once released from prison, he hosted business tycoons, military higher-ups and showbiz personalities at extravagant dinner parties. “Everybody loved him,” says historian Bob Dye. “He was just so charming.”

I prefer some of the accounts from the Pacific of the 1800s, where you’ll find things like “the mob fell upon him,” or, “armed with spears, clubs and stones, they attacked and killed all but two,” or “six months’ hard labor.” Now that’s punishment. We need a mob when Mel Gibson starts dissing Jewish people. And could we please run Paris Hilton out on a rail?

Of course, I’m not suggesting we attack a pantyless heiress, but it would be nice if public opinion could actually turn against people when they repeatedly act like fools. Forgiveness is a wonderful thing, but let’s leave that for the families and friends of the actor/politician/pop star to dish out. Your movie-ticket money and esteem are worth something, especially en masse. They may not be spears, but it is still good for us to brandish them.