Mercy on offer
It is that generous, good will toward men (and women) time of year. So, it's time to extend my annual offer of understanding and absolution to public officials and other leaders for the crimes they have committed against us in 2006.
It is not the case that politicians and other public figures are without consciences. As we all do, they regret the bad things they've done.
But you and I have to deal with the wife, or the kids, or your mother, or the boss, or the in-laws. All of them have that piercing, inborn genetic technology that can detect your screwups whenever and wherever they are committed. Sometimes, they even know before you do something wrong that you're going to do.
The bigwigs among us believe that because they do business on the grand scale, as they do, maybe they can slip by without getting caught.
That's why they smile 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 being indicted for tax evasion or election fraud, of course he wishes he'd flossed that morning or that he'd taken his press secretary's advice about having his teeth bleached or veneered, but he smiles broadly nevertheless, as he speaks directly to the cameras and the microphones, "It's all a mistake, I'll be cleared in the end."
Nothing embarrasses them. But, the possibility of redemption may fire a passion in such a person to take a walk, however brief, on the right side of the road. That's what I'm counting on.
Exhibit one, as I make my case for extending this offer each year, is a picture I remember appearing in the paper. Some member of Congress was skipping down the steps of the Capitol, big smile on his face, waving to the Capitol police who were standing nearby guarding the building.
The photo caption said Senator So and So waved a greeting as he left the Capitol after Congress adjourned. To the right, the cop didn't crack a smile, didn't lift an arm.
The senator smiled because he hoped the dazzle would blind us to the unfinished business he and the rest of Congress left behind. The cop didn't smile because where these politicians are concerned, he knows what he's looking at, and there's nothing to smile about.
But, believe me, that senator, 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. And your vote in the next election.
About this time each year, I make an appeal to the miscreants to come forward. I promise to hear their confessions and, in all but the worst cases, absolve them of their sins. Sometimes, I ask them to do a little penance. That often precipitates a negotiation, as you might imagine. "In the spirit of bipartisanship," they begin, but I'm not listening to any of that. As the priest told me, you have to come to confession with an open heart, an honest sorrow for your sins, and the expectation of nothing but the prospect of forgiveness.
Now, let's be clear, 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 has kicked in so much as a thin persuasive dime to lubricate the process. Which makes these dispensations cheap, I suppose, though hardly honorable.
Second - and this is not necessarily something we are proud of either - the recipients of clemency are mostly accepted according to the whimsical opinion of the editor. The behavior of public figures needs a lot of forgiveness, of course, but we have to pick and choose.
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, though generally I know who they are.) Not everyone applies, and if they don't confess, they get no forgiveness.
Fourth, when they say they're sorry, I don't always believe them, but I figure feigned regret is better than smiling denial, so all are welcome.
Anyway, following confession, an embossed certificate, suitable for framing, will be sent to each.
Forgive me, but I want to make a couple of special appeals to some of the most dedicated and prominent sinners among us, namely the Dukes County commissioners and the members of the Martha's Vineyard Commission. Of course you are burdened with the accumulated weight of your sins against your constituents, and of course you doubt the efficacy of so simple a spiritual device as confession. But, I assure you, every one, that when you are done, when you have unburdened yourselves to me, your heart will lift, your step will lighten, and you'll wonder, "Why didn't I do this the last time he offered."
And, more broadly, to the many public servants and just plain folks who have avoided confession for years, and to those who confessed but were not absolved, be of good cheer. You will have more to regret in the year ahead, and we can visit then. The door to the editorial confessional is never shut to those in need.