Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Book Chat: J.M. Fenster, Author Of "Cheaters Always Win"

J.M. Fenster is the award-winning author of many works of American history and commentary, including Packard: The Pride, which won several national awards; Ether Day, which won the Anesthesia Foundation prize; the New York Times bestseller Parish Priest with Doug Brinkley; the PBS documentary First Freedom; and the book Mavericks, Miracles, and Medicine, which was also a documentary on A&E.

Fenster's new book, Cheaters Always Win:The Story of America (Twelve; hardcover, $28.00; eBook, $14.99), is a social history of cheating and how American history - through real estate, sports, finance, academics, and of course politics - has had its unfair share of rigged results and widened the margins on its gray areas.

Drawing from the intriguing, and sometimes unbelievable, true stories of the lives of everyday Americans, Fenster traces the history of the weakening of our national ethics through the practice of cheating. From marital infidelity to financial fraud, rigged sports competitions to political corruption, nuclear weaponry to beauty pageants, nothing and no one is exempt.

Cheaters are far from being ostracized, and continue to survive and even thrive in every sphere, casting their influence over the rest of society. This is most obvious in the recent tectonic shift in our politics, where a revolution in our collective attitude toward fraudsters has ushered in a new kind of leadership.

This highly-detailed work is part history of an all-American tradition, part dissection of an ongoing national crisis, making it a smart, sardonic, and scintillating look into the practice that made America what it is today.

I chatted with Fenster recently about Cheaters Always Win:

Jason Schott: How did you come up with the concept for such a unique book?
J.M. Fenster: The book started because I had this heartbreaking obsession with a baseball player, James Devlin, who played Major League Baseball in the 1870s, and when he was caught cheating - at a time when a lot of baseball players did do point shaving and various little cheating art - but he and some others were caught cheating and he was banished for life, from playing the game he loved, and he couldn't hack it, couldn't handle the word forever. He wrote to the commissioner everyday, apparently, for the rest of his short life begging to be reinstated. I was very taken by the idea that, for one infraction, you're out, you are out, and I think it obviously is such a contrast with today that I started to realize that in our own lifetimes, I think the attitude has changed quite a bit from, really, harsh recrimination if you're caught cheating to kind of a bland acceptance. Far from being a moralist, but having been a historian for quite a long time, I suddenly realize that the history of our own times is pretty interesting, too, especially when there's this dramatic change toward something important.

JS: Do you think part of that attitude change has to do with the phrase "it's amazing he got away with it," that there is a fascination to people being able to evade punishment, especially in the movies.
JMF: I think the whole idea that some people sneak by, but I think by and large, there was a time when - and not too long ago, 25, 30 years ago, even - if you were caught in an extramarital affair, somebody was going to move to another state. I'm not saying good or bad, but boy have things changed.

JS: Going back to James Devlin, contrast his punishment to people's reactions to the Houston Astros' cheating scandal, where they are alleged to have stolen signs in the 2017 playoffs on their way to a World Championship, and how the reaction has been rather muted aside from in the cities of teams Houston beat that year.
JMF: Have you noticed that? I'm amazed, I think the pre-history on this one was when the St. Louis Cardinals cheated against these same Astros in a computer hacking scandal two years ago, the Cardinals were found to be guilty of cheating, going against the rules of Major League Baseball, and they were given a $2 million fine, and two-draft pick punishment. Anybody who knows baseball knows that, sad to say, $2 million is chicken feed in their budget, and so I think because these kinds of things either go mildly punished or everybody gets a second chance, and we're talking about baseball, but we could be talking about all kinds of different topics in America today, all kind of the same pace.

JS: The premise of your book is also how you see this theme running throughout American history, can you give examples of a sort of through-line that connects everything?
JMF: The book is divided into - not subject matter, like here's sports, here's extramarital cheating, and here's business - it's really divided into two main sections, people who get cheated, and I think that includes 100 percent of the population at some point, and then people who cheat, sort of why some do and some don't. I try to have it a little weighted tilted the 20th century and the late-20th century, so that the comparisons were a little bit of the same technology, things that were familiar to people a little bit more. I can't say that this traces everything, but I can say that, in the effort to turn a page and make people stop cheating, one of the more interesting examples is George Washington and the Founders, after the Revolution, after the Constitution was ratified, exhorted new Americans, or would-be new Americans, that Democracy was based on, what I would call this public virtue, and without it, there would be no other dictator. George Washington, in his speeches and public writings, was really continually telling the American people, you may have been a little slipshod under the British, but you've really got to treat each other more honestly under our American democracy because that's all we've got is each other. We don't have an overruling dictator or king to push against. If you're slipshod and push against anybody, you're pushing against everybody. I'd like to think that George Washington was the first person who was faced with this question of American cheating, and I think his influence lasted for a couple decades, and then it kind of waned and we had to reassess, and reassess every few decades or few generations. Maybe that's what this book is about, can we reassess, can we please have a look at ourselves now?

JS: That definitely speaks to this moment, where there is a lack of faith in our institutions, be it government, the press, business. All these facets of society, people don't think they're looking out for them.
JMF: I really think the attitude is pervasive, and that, if I can use the phrase, it is kind of un-American to stop holding ourselves to a higher standard in all kinds of ways. Again, we talk about sports, and people might think, what's really the difference? Well, it's just a mirror on everything else. If we want leaders who are pretty sterling, we better try to be the same. The fact that people are doubting our government, maybe we ought to look at ourselves first and see how we reflect the government, even.

JS: There's almost a yearning to tear things down and start over.
JMF: That's a good point, I never thought of it that way. Instead of starting over, just looking at things more clearly. In the book, I like to think I'm as much a flapper and a philosopher, to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, you have to laugh and cry together. It's really kind of a fun topic, and I almost wonder if that's a little bit of why it's so accepted because you kind of smirk when someone does get away with some kind of cheating. It's become a little bit locker room to, I shudder to say, almost admire somebody that gets away with cheating. This isn't really a political book, but our current president is self-admitted as a cheater, wrote about it in some of his books, and that really was something new in the American presidency, but my contention is that America changed first and then we got a president who is a self-admitted cheater. I don't think he could have come along at a different era, admitting to different cheating things in his life.

JS: You could say this started with Bill Clinton, who was a cheater up to and including his time in the White House, and then even back to Ronald Reagan, who was divorced; Nancy was his second wife. It started little by little, and then all came to a head with Donald Trump.
JMF: That's kind of the point of the book, that in a certain sense, the door kind of creaked open for a president, whether it was Trump or someone else, but a pretty openly admitted cheater, that door started to open, as you say, at least 20, 25 years ago. We can't look at any president too closely, it would get crazy, but certainly, Bill Clinton changed the nation, started that door creaking.

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