During a candidates forum in Ward 2, a middle-aged man with gray hair rose and asked the question many Washingtonians might have wanted to ask Eleanor Holmes Norton. Stating that many people in the room had long admired her career and achievements, he said they were now struggling to come to grips with the controversy over her taxes. "Could you," he asked, "help us in our struggle?"
It's the same struggle I have had since the revelation about the Norton family's unpaid taxes three days before the Sept. 11 primary.
Norton gave the man a long response, recounting the much- publicized beginnings and evolution of the controversy over her income taxes. She ended by asking him whether he thought it reasonable to believe, based on what he knew of her life and work, that she would have run for D.C. delegate knowing that "I had not paid my taxes . . . or whether that was not the least likely explanation."
Like many Washingtonians, I have considered the easy and the difficult analyses of this situation. The easy one says: "Most people know whether or not their taxes are paid; she said she didn't know, therefore she is lying." The probing analyst reads the many news stories, looks at several different explanations and tries to decide which makes the most sense.
Feeling that, minimally, Norton's life of service deserved more than an easy analysis, I wanted to go beyond the widely reported accounts of the family's failure to file. I asked her in a recent interview about the skepticism of some who say the failure to pay was not rooted in intellect, which Eleanor and Edward Norton have in abundance, but in the murkier emotional arena.
"Even if it was in the sheer emotional area, you're about to run for Congress," she said, "the first thing you're going to feel is fear about all the exposure you're going to get that you didn't have before because you were a private citizen. There's no way in the world, if you value your reputation at all, that you'd get out here in the light of what exposure does to a candidate and say, 'I'm going to run.' On the emotional level, that is insanity."
Had she known about the unpaid taxes, she said, the first thing she would have done was to pay up, but she also would not have entered the race. "Owing eight years' taxes and paying them at one time is almost as bad as owing eight years' worth of taxes and running without paying them," she said.
Asked why she didn't abandon her candidacy after the disclosure, Norton said to withdraw would have reinforced a falsehood -- that she had known about the unpaid taxes. "No one would have ever believed that I had not known," she said.
But Norton added emphatically, in a way she had not in earlier interviews, that she assumed complete responsibility for the problem. "Even though I didn't know, I was responsible. They were my taxes. Passing the responsibility, or allowing the responsibility to gravitate to my husband, was a matter for me of absolute necessity because I may have been the world's busiest woman. But that does not absolve me of responsibility. That's why I had to take charge of my own finances.
"The thing that gives me the most trouble is why my husband did not tell me for the several months that I was running, on the theory that it might surface during the campaign. He has offered an explanation . . . . He was afraid to pay it once I got out there and ran because he thought that might call attention to it, so he was caught in the earlier deception -- the deception that began in 1982 when he told me the taxes were filed."
As Washingtonians have considered this tale that has all the dimensions of a Greek tragedy -- an Achilles' heel and a fallen hero -- some believe Norton and some do not. Others dislike her handling of the problem, even her tardiness in taking responsibility for it.
I choose to give Norton the benefit of the doubt because I know her, and because of her lifetime of achievement. Furthermore, I know, from my own life, that strange divisions of responsibility can occur in marriages. Norton's arrangement, where her husband handled the finances, is not uncommon.
Many Washingtonians had placed Norton on a pedestal of sorts. But all of us occasionally make serious mistakes. I don't excuse her the grievous error of not paying her taxes. But I do think that, based on her contributions, she would do an exemplary job for the District, and her mistake does not call for penalizing her by denying her a seat in Congress.