The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The tragedy of Herschel Walker

Herschel Walker waiting to take the stage at Pirate Printing in Hiram, Ga on Sunday, Nov. 6. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Herschel Walker could be basking in his former glory, his many offenses against women, children, honesty and the English language neatly masked by the invisibility cloak of celebrity. He is, after all, a walking personification of University of Georgia football, and Georgia is flying high: undefeated and ranked No. 1. Every great season stirs memories of past triumphs, and Walker is — or was, anyway — triumph personified.

In three seasons before turning pro after his junior year, the powerful running back scored 52 touchdowns, rushed for more than 5,000 yards and won 33 games against just three losses. He won the 1982 Heisman Trophy by a mile over a Stanford University quarterback named John Elway. Walker was the marquee player of the short-lived U.S. Football League, then entered the National Football League, where he racked up 61 touchdowns.

Perhaps, to borrow a phrase, he got tired of winning, because today he is known for his humiliating campaign for U.S. Senate from Georgia. The debacle — which featured allegations of his abandoned children, terrorized mates, brandished firearms, fictionalized achievements and secret funding of girlfriends’ abortions — ended on Tuesday with Walker’s opponent, Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D), reelected in a runoff.

Georgia GOP Senate candidate Herschel Walker on Dec. 6 said his campaign was the “best thing” he had done after losing to Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.). (Video: The Washington Post)

It’s one thing for a deeply flawed person to accept admiration for his former athletic magnificence, but it’s quite another for him to seek a role in leading the country. The dirty laundry that Walker kept stuffed into the vault behind his trophy case was hauled into the glare of television lights and packaged into millions of dollars of negative advertising. One of Walker’s sons summed up his famous father this way: He “left us to bang a bunch of women, threatened to kill us, and had us move over 6 times in 6 months” to escape the mayhem of his own making.

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No tackler could trip him up but, on the campaign trail, Walker struggled to break free of the grip of simple sentences. In the last days of the race, Warnock bought TV time to play Walker’s most baffling statements over and over. It is a bad sign in politics when your opponent starts paying to broadcast your words.

Georgia’s Republican lieutenant governor was pithy in assessing Walker’s political career: “one of the worst candidates in our party’s history.”

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What compels a person to shower in gasoline and light up a cigar? In Walker’s case, it is a familiar story. He came into the orbit of that serial destroyer of other people’s reputations, Donald Trump.

The two men bonded after Trump acquired the New Jersey Generals of the USFL in 1983. Walker was the Generals’ superstar; luring him away from college the previous year had been a coup for the upstart league. Trump believed that Walker’s on-field prowess could help him force a merger with the established NFL.

Instead, like many of Trump’s enterprises, the league went bust. The mogul and his athletic marvel split on friendly terms after the 1985 season, the USFL’s last, during which Walker gained an incredible 2,411 yards. Despite going their separate ways — Walker to the NFL, Trump to the money pit of Atlantic City — they remained friendly. And we all know what becomes of Trump’s friends.

Consider Michael Cohen, the longtime personal lawyer who ended up in prison. Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization financial officer who pleaded guilty to tax fraud. Former Man of the Year Rudy Giuliani, who stood with hair dye running down his cheeks as he spread the stolen-election nonsense that cost him his license to practice law in New York.

And so on.

By encouraging Walker to run for the Senate and endorsing him in the Republican primary, Trump reminded the world of his contempt for American government and American ideals. One hot mess is as good as the next when it comes to burning down the GOP and replacing it with a cult of Trump. As usual, voters disagreed and rejected Walker — just as they rejected Trump’s unready candidates in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona in November.

A true friend would have told Walker: Keep your head down and stay out of politics. People love you as a football icon, but running for office is a whole new ballgame. It doesn’t matter how fast you are; you can’t outrun opposition research. You have no blockers to protect you from yourself.

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