Forgive us, Pete, but we're not ready to forgive you

January 09, 2004|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - To err is human; to forgive, divine. But if it's all right with you, I'll leave the divine virtues to the Almighty when he passes judgment in the next world.

In this world, winning redemption has gotten entirely too easy. Standards of decent behavior are slipping, and one way to uphold them is to declare that some types of repellent behavior are not forgivable. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.

But these days, hardly anyone wants to be so mean. Which is one reason Pete Rose thinks he can interrupt 14 years of lying and expect a prompt remission of sins from the commissioner of baseball. "I've consistently heard the statement, `If Pete Rose came clean, all would be forgiven,'" he says. "Well, I've done what you've asked."

He also whines that baseball is much more lenient with alcoholics and drug addicts than it has been with him. And he claims he was never corrupt because he didn't let his inside knowledge affect how much he bet on his team. He obviously thinks the real crime is the punishment.

Mr. Rose has good reason to think he can buy his way out of disgrace with a minimal show of remorse. That strategy worked for journalist Stephen Glass, who carried off one of the most outrageous scams in the history of American journalism: making up dozens of stories and publishing them as fact in The New Republic magazine. He got fired, but after going to law school and writing a book about his experience, he found himself being portrayed on screen in a Hollywood movie and even being invited to write for Rolling Stone.

Mr. Glass has expressed regret for what he did, in what one former colleague called "contrition as a career move." But anyone guilty of what he did ought to put himself through some real agony before presuming to ask forgiveness.

A good model is the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, who, after being excommunicated for defying the pope, stood outside the papal castle for three days, barefoot in the snow, before he was granted clemency. Until I see frostbite on Mr. Glass' toes, don't even talk to me about letting him back among honest journalists.

Same for Bill Clinton being allowed to practice law. It wasn't enough for him that he held on to his office despite being impeached for lying under oath about Monica Lewinsky. He also had the nerve to think he should keep his law license after committing perjury in the presence of a federal judge - an abuse of the same legal system that lawyers are obligated to protect.

A lot of wrongdoers go from sin to absolution without even the bother of doing penance. Oliver L. North and G. Gordon Liddy were up to their necks in White House scandals - Iran-contra for Mr. North and Watergate for Mr. Liddy. Mr. Liddy went to prison, and Mr. North would have gone, if his conviction hadn't been overturned for reasons having nothing to do with his guilt. But both managed to convert their notoriety into lucrative careers as celebrity pundits.

This is one field where gaining infamy by committing crimes is a plus on your rM-isumM-i. In my book, though, if you've betrayed the American people and the American political system while working in government, you have about as much business offering political commentary as Michael Jackson has operating a day care center.

Mr. North and Mr. Liddy are Republicans, but Democrats don't exactly occupy the moral high ground. Former Illinois Democratic Rep. Dan Rostenkowski served time for corruption but insisted he wasn't guilty, notwithstanding the conspicuous fact that he pleaded guilty. Upon release from prison, he too had a spot waiting for him as a TV commentator.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was accused of groping assorted women over the course of many years, and even acknowledged that some of the stories were true. Instead of being hauled before a judge to enter a plea, he was hauled before a judge to be sworn in as governor of California. I know I'm being radical here, but is it too much to suggest that if you've tacitly admitted multiple episodes of sexual battery, you shouldn't be elected to public office?

Arnold made a vague general apology, it's true. But some things can't be forgiven, and certainly not without a more strenuous show of contrition than he's made.

He, Mr. Rose, Mr. Glass and the others may have won mercy from the Almighty. If they want it from the rest of us, though, I'd say: Take off your shoes and go stand in the snow. When your 72 hours is up, we'll forgive you. Maybe.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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