THERE ARE NO SECOND ACTS IN American lives, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously and rather puzzlingly said. What there are these days are HBO movies. Movies you never dreamed possible: I, for example, would have thought the only thing less cinematic than a reporter sitting at a keyboard writing up the news would be a reporter sitting at a keyboard making up the news. And I would have been wrong.
Because as it turns out, HBO has commissioned a movie about Stephen Glass.
Glass, remember, is the promising young reporter who, in articles for the New Republic and other first-rank publications, was discovered to have fabricated so many sources, scenes and quotations that his name supplanted, or at least joined, that of Janet Cooke as a shorthand for journalistic villainy. When the extent of his invention became known, Glass lost his job and was widely denounced. That was last year, however, and now clemency, it seems, is in the offing. While Glass will not profit from the movie if it airs, he will, no doubt, profit from the Georgetown law degree he has quietly continued to earn. In short, he is well into his second act -- as is, for that matter, his former New Republic colleague Ruth Shalit, a talented writer and serial plagiarist who is now rehabbing with a job in advertising.
Which is not to say that Fitzgerald was wrong. Conspicuously denied any second act has been Janet Cooke herself, another promising reporter and (people forget this) talented writer who in 1981 was discovered to have fictionalized Jimmy, an 8-year-old heroin addict featured in a story she wrote for The Washington Post. In a sense, you could say Cooke's offense was, though heinous, of a lesser magnitude than Glass's: She made up one person, whereas he made up scores. Yet not only did Cooke lose her Pulitzer, her job and her reputation; she lost her employability to the point where, even years later, what work she found was in retail.
At any rate, news of the HBO project revived a question I have sometimes had. Why is it that someone like Glass gets a second chance at a lucrative white-collar career when somebody like Cooke, it seems likely, never will? Why can certain people return to the stage after a decent intermission, while others must wander the earth in sackcloth and ashes? Some might say the obvious answer is race -- Cooke is black and Glass is white -- while others might point to social status, to blue-chip resumes and fancy diplomas, things Glass had and Cooke also felt obliged to invent.
I wonder, though, if it isn't also a matter of timing; if Cooke has inured us to Shalit, and Shalit to Glass; if over the years Americans have become so used to transgression that the more outrageous the transgression the more willing we are to forgive it, as evidence of extreme youth, or extreme ambition, or extreme lust, or some other extremity we accept and may even secretly admire. One thinks naturally of the president: After sexual scandal, congressional impeachment and judicial reprimand, Bill Clinton is enjoying his own second act, if not his third or fourth, while Republican contender George W. Bush has demanded and so far received a second act despite whatever drugs he may or may not have used. One notes as well that Jim Bakker, Marv Albert and Dick Morris are all back with us; male sexual miscreancy, like the unscrupulous clawing of young overachievers, seems to be something the country can learn to live with.
It's easy to conjecture that this culture of forgiveness is due largely to -- well, to HBO, and to Oprah, to 12-step programs and seven-secrets books and an endless public parade of tearful regrets. What I find hard to understand is how, at the same time, we show a startling immunity to the regrets of the powerless or simply the private citizen. Just the other day, a woman I know -- a senior analyst for a Fortune 500 company -- was arrested, handcuffed and jailed after her subway turnstile stopped and, thinking the fare had been subtracted from her card and the turnstile had malfunctioned, she went through the gate with a friend. This was in New York City, which in its famous crackdown on jaywalkers and squeegeemen has seen full expression of the "broken windows" theory of crime -- the idea that small crimes must be punished before they blossom, inevitably, into raging pathologies. Similarly, around the country teenagers (typically those in inner cities) are being arrested for violating juvenile curfews; small-time drug users (typically those who, being impoverished, are obliged to traffic on the street rather than in the clubhouse bathroom) are being sentenced under inflexible mandatory minimums; schoolchildren (typically people who've shown some capacity for change) are being expelled for carrying pocket-knives, regarded as little Littletons in the making.
Who does get a second act in American life? In 1981, the teenagers I knew often did, and Janet Cooke did not. Now, it almost seems as if the reverse is true: as if American society is gripped by moral largesse toward high crimes and obsessive nip-it-in-the-budism toward minor missteps. Now, it almost seems as if it's the turnstile jumpers who go to jail and the pathological fabricators who go to . . . law school.
Liza Mundy's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.