Sunday, August 10, 2008

This Just In

Somehow the desire to wrestle with Big Ideas evaporated in the summer heat, but I keep on reading the papers. Some random news items and the thoughts they provoke:

Pinocchios in Politics: Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is self-destructing, charged now with 10 felony counts in two separate cases after he allegedly assaulted two sheriff’s deputies trying to serve a subpoena on a friend of his. Kilpatrick had previously been tossed in the clink for violating bond conditions on a perjury rap. I think the pressure’s getting to him.

It’s a sad spectacle any way you look at it. What’s interesting to me is how the whole thing started: with accusations of adultery which emerged in the course of a lawsuit against Kilpatrick brought by a police official he had fired. The suit had nothing to do with Kilpatrick’s love life, but he denied the accusations under oath and was promptly indicted for perjury, starting his death spiral.

Meanwhile, the papers today are full of John Edwards’s confession after repeated denials that he conducted an affair with a staffer while his wife was suffering from cancer. There goes his political career. Maybe he and Kilpatrick can open a hot dog stand together. Then there was Eliot Spitzer. Oh, and the last time a U.S. President was impeached it was all about hanky-panky in the Oval Office, wasn’t it?

The worldly Europeans laugh at us about this. The fact that a political career in the United States can founder on an illicit love affair leaves them shaking their heads. France’s former president Mitterand fathered an illegitimate daughter and lived with his mistress, and the current guy, Nicolas Sarkozy, ditched his wife and hooked up with a fashion model in the middle of his first year in office, all under the glare of the flashbulbs. Nobody’s calling for his resignation, not for that, anyway.

Are we hopeless Puritan boobs in this country? Does a man’s philandering have anything to do with his competence as an administrator, his vision as a statesman? When Georgia and Russia are at war and Pakistan is about to fly into a thousand pieces, is John Edwards really the most important news story? What gives with this?

There’s no question that there’s a strong Puritan strain in our culture; the country was settled by folks who came here because they thought Europe was hopelessly Godless and decadent. There’s no Religious Right anywhere near as strong as ours in Europe. And that’s reflected in our politics.

But there’s more to it than that. Look at what people are actually getting indicted for. Kilpatrick’s original crime was perjury. And Bill Clinton was impeached not for shtuping the help when he should have been attending to matters of state but, again, for lying about it under oath. As for Spitzer, he knew his career was over because he campaigned as a paragon of virtue and then got caught with his pants down.

In other words, Americans don’t like liars and hypocrites. I haven’t heard anyone suggest that JFK was a lousy president because he cheated on Jackie. And Barney Frank is still in Congress despite his dalliance with the head of a male prostitution ring because he admitted everything and threw himself on the mercy of his constituents. At least in Massachusetts, voters can be very forgiving. It’s getting caught and not fessing up that’s fatal.

So if you’re up to no good, whether cheating on your wife or cheating on your taxes (remember, Martha Stewart didn’t go to the Big House because of insider trading but because she lied about it to investigators), whatever you do, just don’t try and deny it. When the snoops kick in the door and catch you with your pants down, you’ll probably be OK if you schedule a press conference the next day, haul your wife in front of the cameras to stand beside you, muster up a few tears and apologize to all and sundry. Americans will forgive just about anything except trying to weasel out of the spanking you know you richly deserve.

Oops: Police in Prince George’s County, Maryland, raided the house of a small-town mayor, shot his two dogs, and kept him in handcuffs for a couple of hours before determining that they had made a mistake in identifying him as a drug dealer. The mayor has been exonerated and received an apology, but the dogs are gone for good.

The War on Drugs keeps producing mistakes like this. When you criminalize actions that are essentially non-predatory, consensual and private, you make everyone’s private life police business. This is a violation of so many American ideals it’s hard to know where to start in listing them. In a country which for the most part does pretty well by world standards at leaving its citizens alone, the drug war is a hideous exception, with Gestapo-like raids, high-handed seizures of property and harsh prison sentences for non-violent actions.

Drugs can do great harm. But drug abuse should be regarded as the user’s problem, like, say, alcohol abuse. Drugs should be regarded as a public health problem rather than a criminal problem. Legalize and regulate, and stop kicking in people’s doors.

Sam Reaves

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