At Large : Please, step into the confessional
It is not true that politicians and other public figures are without consciences. They, like us, regret the bad things they've done. But, you and I have to deal with the boss, or the wife, or the kids, or your mother. All of them have that magic inborn genetic technology. They can detect your screw-ups whenever and wherever they are committed. Sometimes, they even know before you do something wrong that you're going to do it, but for some sinister reason they issue no warnings. For us wee ones, there's no escaping.
But, the political bigwigs believe that because they do business on the grand scale, as they do, maybe they can slip by without getting caught. They are confident enough of their preeminence that, while aware that their planned course of conduct - say, auctioning off a Senate seat - is, in its uncomfortable similarity to soliciting a bribe, criminal in nature, or at least appallingly wrong, their attitude is, "So what, they can't touch me." Consequently, they undertake the negotiations over telephone lines.
That's why they smile, and smile hugely, at odd moments. For instance, a typical politician smiles when a camera is pointed at him. Now, if he happens to be on the steps of the federal courthouse moments after the U.S. Attorney for his ravaged constituency has just enumerated for the television cameras the criminal complaints against our handsome, glib, favorite son for tax evasion or election fraud, he may wish he'd flossed that morning or that he'd taken his press secretary's advice about having his teeth bleached, or worn the red tie rather than the blue, but he smiles broadly nevertheless, as he says to the cameras and the microphones, it's all a mistake, I'll be cleared in the end. Nothing embarrasses such profiles in political coverage.
Senators, congressmen, and presidents smile because they hope the dazzle will blind us to their mauled management of the public's business. But believe me, they and all the lesser public figures we endure know they've done wrong, and if they can't hide their sins, well then they want forgiveness.
There was a time - in college, as I remember - when I imagined I had a vocation to the priesthood. One speechless, weekend retreat cured me of that illusion. So, alas, it is not as an ordained priest that I offer political miscreants the forgiveness they crave. It's as an unordained, and even accidental, newspaper editor that I extend this annual, year-end consolation. I think it's the least an editorial writer can do. Consequently, in my secular capacity, I am prepared to hear their confessions and to absolve them of their sins. Sometimes I ask them to do a little penance, which they promise to do. But, who knows?
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, these are newspaper absolutions, not presidential pardons, or divine indulgences. There are several important differences.
First, and most regrettably, no money changes hands. Not one of the recipients of this newspaper's editorial clemency will be obliged to kick in so much as a thin, persuasive dime to lubricate the process. Which makes these dispensations cheap, I suppose, but not worthless, and hardly honorable.
Second - and this is not necessarily something we are proud of either - the recipients of clemency will be accepted mostly by whimsy. The behavior of public figures needs a lot of forgiveness, of course, but we have to pick and choose. Even the patience of a newspaper editor is not unlimited.
Third, clemency is based upon what I hear when the candidates make their confessions to me in private. (There's a little room behind the office here where they come. There's a screen between the sinner and me. I can't see them, but I can hear what they say, and generally I know who they are.) Not everyone will apply, of course. The record over the years has been spotty. The rock bottom rule is that those who don't confess get no forgiveness. And of course, for some, their transgressions cannot be absolved, at least not by a newspaperman.
Fourth, when they say they're sorry, I don't always believe them, but mostly I figure their feigned regret is better than the smiling denial with which they answer the prosecutor's allegations, so all are welcome to try. To the many public servants and just plain folks who make their confessions but are not absolved, I say, be of good cheer. You will have more to regret in the year ahead, and we can visit then.
So, I have taken my place in the confessional. I await you. And, by the way: if it helps, an embossed certificate, suitable for framing, will be sent to each confessor.