Sides, Hampton, Newsweek
Byline: Hampton Sides
What the fall of Greg Mortenson tells us about America's irrepressible longing for heroes.
I remember my first Mortenson Moment. It was a few years ago, in an old auditorium in Santa Fe, N.M., and I sat waiting with my wife and son in a large murmuring crowd. Greg Mortenson, arriving late, flashed a shy smile and a namaste sign as he took the stage. He had a bashful cluelessness that somehow made him all the more endearing. Soon he launched into The Story: How in 1993, he stumbled into the tiny Pakistani village of Korphe after a failed attempt on K2. How the kind villagers nursed him back to health with many cups of tea. How as payment for their generosity, he returned to build a school. How that one school became hundreds of schools across Pakistan and Afghanistan. And how, tonight, we could help him build more.
If Mortenson's story--distilled from his mega-bestseller Three Cups of Tea--seemed smarmy in places, its pull was irresistible. Anybody with a heart had to be inspired by the beautiful idea that one man could make such a profound difference in such a hard and desperate part of the world. I remember thinking that this was not only a book talk and charity fundraiser, it was something akin to a religious experience--a modern-day tent revival. People had not merely come to listen, they'd come to believe. Mortenson, a son of missionaries and a nurse by training who by then had been thrice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (and whose books were required reading by the Pentagon), was a secular saint who'd seized upon a revolutionary notion that soared across conflicts and continents--the power of educating children, especially girls, in tribal societies racked by poverty and war. In our cynical age, he was one dreamer who seemed to give off an authentic halo glow. That night, I could see genuine reverence in people's eyes and in the earnest faces of children clutching their jars of pennies.
I wish I could say now that I was skeptical of Mortenson's performance, but I wasn't. Like everyone else, I wrote a check and bought a book and stood in line. I, too, believed.
This past week, thanks to a 60 Minutes expose followed by an extended piece of electronic journalism by bestselling author Jon Krakauer, we learned that Mortenson may very well be a charlatan. That significant passages of The Story appear to be fictions (including the whole genesis tale about his sentimental recovery in Korphe). That the "Taliban abductors" so harrowingly described in Three Cups of Tea were supposedly friendly villagers protecting him as a guest of honor. That his charity, the Bozeman, Mont.-based Central Asia Institute, is apparently hopelessly mismanaged. That many of its schools stand empty--some of them serving as storage sheds for hay.
It's only natural to feel betrayed and disappointed upon discovering that those we admire are flawed. But this was more than simple imperfection. Mortenson stood accused of literary, managerial, and fiduciary sins so sweeping that they threatened to demolish the entire edifice of his good works. Believers like me were left to pick up the million little pieces of yet another shattered hero. And to wonder, how could we have been so gullible?
Americans have a profound longing for heroes--now perhaps more than ever. We need our explorers, our sports icons, our Medal of Freedom winners, our Nobel laureates. We need our Greatest Generation warriors, our "Sully" Sullenbergers, our Neil Armstrongs. On some level, we still subscribe to the myth of the man in the white hat. …