Back in the 1970s, after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, I was not inclined to join in the wailing and gnashing of teeth over President Gerald Ford’s decision to preemptively pardon the former president for any potential criminal charges related to Watergate.
It seemed to me that for Richard Nixon to have had to resign – in worldwide disgrace – the high office for which he had striven so long, with such undisguised ambition; for him to have to live out the rest of his years in the abject humiliation of being the only U.S. President driven from office by scandal – was appropriately harsh punishment. To have further divided the nation through a protracted legal process seemed not worth the extra pound of flesh demanded by those for whom this man could not be made to suffer enough.
An so it was that, more than 30 years later, I took the same attitude when prosecutors declined to pursue criminal charges against New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, after he resigned over a prostitution scandal. Here too, I felt that for this obsessively driven political climber to have been forced to resign in disgrace, and end what had seemed a limitless political career, was punishment enough.
Except, as we now know, he did not end his political career. And he is far from the only current politician who, having resigned public office in disgrace, is back, seeking to regain political power. In New York City we also have Anthony Weiner running for mayor, as he had been planning to do for several years before his sexting scandal drove him from Congress and –- or so we thought — out of politics. And New York City Council candidate Vito Lopez, drummed out of the State Assembly in June for serial sexual harassment of subordinates, did not even let one election cycle pass before seeking another political office.
Nor is it only New York, or only among Democrats. In South Carolina, Republican Mark Sanford, forced to resign the governorship after carrying on a secret extra-marital affair -– in South America, while lying to the people and government officials in South Carolina about his whereabouts -– ran, and was elected earlier this year, to Congress.
Sadly, many politicians routinely break faith with the public –- reneging on campaign promises, demagoguing and distorting the positions of their opponents, even misrepresenting their own records when politically expedient.
But when their misdeeds are so serious as to drive them from office, one would hope they would follow Mr. Nixon’s example –- or better yet, that of John Profumo, the married British secretary of war who, in 1962, at the height of the Cold War, resigned after an affair with a woman who at the same time was cavorting with a Soviet spy.
Nixon, although he engaged in some subtle efforts to rehabilitate his image -– doing some interviews and speeches, writing books — for the most part retired quietly, and certainly did not run for office or seek serious political influence again.
Profumo, however — as commentator Peggy Noonan documented in her powerful article last July 12 in the Wall Street Journal -– really set the standard for finding “grace after disgrace,” as Noonan’s piece was titled.
He resigned, left politics for good, and spent the next 40 years working at Toynbee Hall, “a rundown settlement house” for the poor in east London. He did “the scut work of social work,” Noonan writes, “washing dishes and cleaning toilets. He visited prisons for the criminally insane, helped with housing for the poor and worker education.” And learned, as he attested 40 years later, “humility.” As a result, Noonan reports, when he died in 2006 at age 91, the Daily Telegraph noted that “few ended their lives as loved and revered by those who knew him.”
What a contrast to our scandal-plagued politicians of today, whose public “repentance” is invariably tied to their latest grab for power; who in their seemingly insatiable lust to be in the public eye cannot distinguish between public fame and public shame; and whose apparently messianic impulses convince them that we simply cannot do without their leadership.
If they are truly penitent, they will instead do as John Profumo did -– put aside their ceaseless pursuit of the power and glory associated with “public service,” and devote themselves instead to real – and humble – service to others. That is how they can work toward true redemption – for themselves, for their reputations, and for the political process they have done so much to discredit and degrade.