It is that time of the year and I must, because I am a columnist, pick my Man of the Year. This hoary device has worked wonders for Time magazine, which relies, as we all do somewhat, on no one's remembering who has been chosen in the past -- Gen. William Westmoreland, for instance. It is in this spirit that I make my pick: Dr. Phil.
Actually, I cheat a bit. I choose Phil McGraw not because of who he is -- the psychologist on TV -- but rather because he is the personification of the American obsession to get on television no matter what. In this sense, Dr. Phil is only the vehicle for many people to appear on television, where, if necessary, they will disclose their most personal problems to an audience of millions of perfect strangers.
You will note -- at least I have noted -- that Dr. Phil never asks any of these people why they have chosen to tell him their personal problems and not, say, a psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist of any sort or -- in real desperation -- a member of the clergy. This man who prides himself on being a straight shooter -- the great non-coddler -- never once asked while I was watching why the people before him were so without shame or a sense of privacy that they were willing to parade their deepest sicknesses for little more than the entertainment of others.
Dr. Phil, then, is the oft-stern face of a whole phenomenon. Such shows as "The Real World," "Survivor," "Fear Factor," "The Bachelor" or "Cathouse" are based on the truth -- the virtual Natural Law -- that there is nothing Americans won't do to be on television. At its most innocent, you can see this law at work around dawn, when people line up outside one of the morning shows to act as human scenery for Katie or Matt or Diane. At least these people are not humiliating themselves.
Not so the participants in the other shows. Those on "Cathouse," for instance, actually signed releases allowing HBO to use footage of them in a house of prostitution. Where I come from, little in life could be more humiliating, more shameful, more unmanly than admitting you had to pay for sex. Not anymore, apparently -- not if it will get you on television.
Careful readers of my column (graduate students desperate for a term paper, shut-ins, my mother) might remember that I saw all this coming. Back in 1992 I wrote about one Peter De Rosa and suggested that his name would become a common noun -- like hooker (Gen. Joseph Hooker) or boycott (Capt. C.C. Boycott) -- but for some reason, this did not happen. I am mystified. After all, De Rosa was not just a man of his times but a man ahead of his times.
De Rosa was the guy who sold videotapes of himself having sex with a 16-year-old hooker. She was Amy Fisher, who later went on to achieve considerable fame by shooting her lover's wife in the face. The victim was Mary Jo Buttafuoco; her husband was the charming and suave Joey Buttafuoco. De Rosa sold his tape to "A Current Affair." He got $8,000.
Is there -- has there ever been? -- a more shameless man than this? He paid for sex. The prostitute was underage. He creepily videotaped it all. And then, as if he had done something wonderful, he sold the tapes to television.
De Rosa somehow understood that television cleanses all. To be seen, to have someone ask you the next day, "Was that you, Pete?" wipes the entire slate clean. You become a somebody. For a nanosecond -- forget Andy Warhol's 15 minutes -- you are famous, never mind for what. Fame is fame. Riches will surely follow -- just don't ask how.
Thus Americans eat worms and have bugs crawl all over them just to be on television. They will proclaim that they go to hookers or, on "Dr. Phil," that their sex life is not what it ought to be. This compulsive need to be on TV has become so routine that Dr. Phil will not even ask why they think 10 minutes with him will change a lifetime of behavioral patterns. The answer is clear: Television changes everything . . . somehow.
Dr. Phil understands this. He understands that what he really offers is not counseling, or his vaunted common sense, but validation: You exist. You matter. For being the open face of a shameless nation and for exploiting the American compulsion to be on TV, Dr. Phil is my Man of the Year.
He just beat out Al Sharpton.