In moments of triumphant hubris, titans do themselves in. The ancient Greeks understood such reversals of fortune, no doubt, but it is still startling to experience a trifecta of comeuppances with the wondrous quickness of modern American life. Trent Lott appears headed toward being brought down by his own words, revealing only what we already knew about the man. Henry Kissinger is compelled to retreat from public life because he cannot bear to disclose the facts of the deals he does with foreign governments for corporate clients. Bernard Cardinal Law, leading archbishop of the American Catholic Church, resigns when faced with the damning evidence of his own behavior, facts that might have sent a less prestigious citizen to prison.
It is easy enough to lose faith in the swift sword of truth, since it often seems maddeningly slow in achieving just outcomes. Everyone familiar with Senator Lott knew he ascended from the segregationist South and acted as though “whites only” Mississippians were his only political base. Kissinger is the acknowledged master of deceitful realpolitik, and his diplomatic brilliance has always rested on keeping the truth of what he was doing from the American people. Cardinal Law might have retired gracefully a year or two back, when the scandal of pedophile priests first gained prominence, but instead he dug in and decided to roll over the anguished voices of the faithful, who are trying to restore the church’s honor.
The truth may be slow, but it is not impotent. In these events, we see confirmation for all those who over many years have patiently stuck to the hard facts and tried to persuade the country that ugly realities must be faced in order to alter things. The public outrage confirms that deeper values have indeed changed beneath the surfaces of public life–that what was tolerated or excused in public figures in the recent past is now intolerable and effectively forbidden. The Republican Party can no longer wink at its past, when it purposely played the race card. The Catholic Church, likewise, can no longer condone cover-ups to protect sex-abusing priests and must open itself to the voices of the laity. Kissinger? Whether or not he ever gets it, his awkward withdrawal–based on his concern about his client list but reflecting at a deeper level his disdain for the public’s right to know–makes him the world’s poster boy for indecent diplomacy, actions now widely understood as indictable crimes. Perhaps this is how progress is ratified as permanent–when a nation is finally appalled by remnant figures from its own past.
The other recent departure from the public stage–that of Al Gore–is a different matter. His decision not to run for President again in 2004 prompts a mixture of sadness and admiration: sadness that Gore did not find his groove as a candidate in 2000; admiration for the personal strength shown in his decision to step aside. Ironically, his voice in recent months on the war, healthcare and the economy has been the strongest among the party’s wannabe candidates for ’04. Perhaps he is now viscerally freed to take bigger strokes in behalf of larger principles–the quality he most lacked as a candidate. In that spirit, Gore can still have a very large impact on the next election–staking out a vision for the country that Democrats can hold up as the litmus test for other challengers.