Body politic drained of its honor Essay: In a nation no longer irked into action by scandals, the corrective measures of disgrace have been silenced.

March 30, 1998|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

President Clinton, embroiled in the most unseemly scandal to ever hit the White House, has bags under his eyes but otherwise appears no worse for wear. The women entangled in his personal life are busy getting their hair done and mugging for the camera. L'affaire Clinton brings fame and fortune and talk of book contracts and shrugs from the American people.

There was a time when people wouldn't show their faces after even small transgressions of the public trust. Take the English nobleman who suffered flatulence while bowing to Queen Elizabeth I. As told by historian Will Durant, the fellow was so mortified that he exiled himself to the New World for three years.

Whither disgrace and its sister, honor?

Does anybody pay in a scandal anymore?

Only a decade ago, the public booed Colorado Sen. Gary Hart off the stage of presidential politics four days after the press exposed his possible extramarital affair. Today, a sitting president is grilled about his private parts and accused of five or six sexual encounters and nobody seems to care.

Add to that the irrepressible reappearances of O. J. Simpson, Janet Cooke, G. Gordon Liddy, Michael Milken, all once tarred in ignominy whether judged guilty or innocent, and the picture gets clearer: Redemption is cheap nowadays.

"It's hard to be scandalous today because there do not seem to be public standards by which we would measure," says Jude Dougherty, dean of philosophy at Catholic University in Washington.

He is reminded of Plato: "What is honored in a society will be cultivated there."

What are Americans cultivating these days? What kind of code do we subscribe to and how has it changed? Where do we cultivate these codes, if not in the body politic?

The public codes that do exist, in military training academies, for instance, have been deemed too harsh, and in the past quarter-century have been revamped dramatically to allow officers to learn from their mistakes. Some say they are better. In private life, there's growing evidence of people struggling to carve out their own codes against the grain of an inert public norm.

They range from David Kaczynski, who turned in his brother in the Unabomber case, to Danny Hoch, a New York comedian who walked away from "Seinfeld," the most popular show on television, rather than play a role that he felt stereotyped Hispanics, that of a servant with a Spanish accent.

Silent treatment

For historical perspective, consider the life and views of someone from a segment of society that has a highly defined code of honor: Army Col. James J. Pelosi, class of 1973, U.S. Military Academy.

Pelosi was the last person "silenced" by fellow cadets for alleged violations of the honor code at West Point. When he was a sophomore, he was accused of continuing to write in an exam after the bell rang. Even though he defeated the charge, he suffered disgrace in the eyes of his fellow students, and using a 100-year-old West Point tradition of retribution, they "silenced him": For two years no student spoke to him except in class. Nor would anyone eat with him or room with him. When he took a seat in the dining hall, everybody at the table got up. If he signed up for an intramural team, others crossed off their names. Each morning he awoke wondering whether he would make it through the day. Most silenced cadets resigned.

Pelosi graduated, and the following fall, after his story was publicized, the corp voted an end to the silent treatment. Still, the basic honor code remained intact: A cadet will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do. The penalty was automatic dismissal.

Then, a couple of years later, a huge cheating scandal made it clear that sizable numbers of cadets were not following the honor code. The stiff penalties were blamed; no one wanted to turn anyone else in because the stakes were too high. Even a cadet whose conscience led him to admit to his honor committee that he lied to his mother about going to a bar was dismissed.

Today "we would applaud the cadet, we'd say 'you'll be a great officer,' " says Capt. Charlie Stone, special assistant to the commandant for the honor program. "Our attitude now is that we must have an honest officer, but we can't expect human beings to absolutely never violate their integrity in a lifetime of service. So when we have a violation, we dig deeper to see if it represents the whole individual."

About 25 cadets are found guilty of violating the code each year. But only a few more than half -- 14 -- are dismissed. The rest are welcomed back into their company. But for six months they must perform community service, teach part of an honors course, write an analysis of Army values and keep a journal of their ethical decisions. These are reviewed weekly with a senior officer.

Stone and others say this system is infinitely better.

"We actually keep some great officers," Stone says, and make better ones: Today's West Point graduate must complete 47 classes devoted to ethics.

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