I arrived at the Jewish Theological Seminary one mid-autumn afternoon in 1987 to take care of some rabbinical business, just in time to watch the workmen blast Ivan Boesky's name from the magnificent new library he had donated. He had just been convicted of his insider stock chicanery and had requested that his name be removed to spare the school the indignity of debating the implications of paying homage to a jail-bound felon.
Boesky served his time as the national archetype of shrewd, manipulative greed. Now it is Michael Milken's turn to assume the role of societal scourge for a public that is only too eager to luxuriate in the undoing of the heretofore high and mighty. As surely as Boesky gave way to Milken, and Leona Helmsley gave way to Pete Rose, a society that revels in scandal must always have a new bogeyman in the wings to slake its blood lust and to reassure it that real evil ever lurks more menacingly "out there" than "in here."
Let's not trivialize the compelling arguments that are made to condemn Boesky and Milken, et al. They are, in the final analysis, criminals whose avarice and unbridled ambition moved them to violate laws intended to promote an equitable marketplace. Their involvement in magnanimous causes has been tainted by the specter of being financed by ill-gotten gains. Their benefactors have been duped, defrauded, by having naively heaped adulation on them at dinners and roasts and testimonials as exemplars of good citizenship and moral rectitude.
The punishment they have withstood also should not be trivialized. Jail time has been the very least of it. Society has contrived an elaborate extralegal ritual of humiliation that is bent on utterly destroying any last pretenses of dignity and humanity to which the wrongdoer might cling:
The appropriateness of the sentence becomes a topic for sanctimonious debate on "Nightline" and "The McLaughlin Group." Camera and microphone invade every private dimension of home and family. Then comes the requisite expose on "A Current Affair," and Geraldo's smarmy recitation of the litany of horrors to a self-righteous studio audience. The ritual is complete as one becomes the butt of jokes in Carson monologues or the Letterman Top Ten. By then, one has been so demeaned into evil/laughing stock incarnate that he enters the national vocabulary as a pop adjective of derision: "Don't let your kid become a Pete Rose." "Bess Myerson is proving to be another Leona."
The relish with which we savor the downfall of people of influence and honor is obviously an impulse that inheres in the darker side of human nature.
The only chance we have to distinguish ourselves from lower forms of animal life is to create a countervailing "rite of reconciliation," a national temperament that is just as zealous in its desire to welcome the penitent as it is to humiliate the sinner. We know only too well what one must do to fall from grace. We have little if any sense of what one must do to regain public honor.
What must Ivan Boesky do to have his name re-inscribed on the library wall? What penance must Michael Milken perform to again be invited to membership on the boards of charitable organizations he supported? What measure of indignity must Pete Rose suffer before being relieved of hearing his name spat out as a pejorative or the punch line of lurid jokes? Should we not at least ponder the time that should elapse, the quantum of worthy deeds one should perform, the changes in demeanor and attitude one should evince, before a person who has betrayed the public trust can re-ingratiate himself as a respected member of society?
This rite of reconciliation, however, cannot be merely an empirical formula of the sum of elapsed time, good deeds and brownie points. Likewise, we must get away from the infantile notion that a splashy, media-hyped jailhouse conversion followed by a tell-all book ballyhooed on Oprah and Phil is the only acceptable transit ticket from sinner to saint. In fact, is little more than another snack to feed society's insatiable appetite for dirty laundry and public spectacle.
No, the real rite of reconciliation demands more from the well- scrubbed faces in the pews than it does from the sinner. It calls us to account for all the righteous Judeo-Christian virtues we piously affirm each Saturday and Sunday, only to betray them each Monday through Friday -- virtues such as acceptance, forgiveness, tolerance, abhorrence of sin but not of sinner, the granting of second chances and the benefit of the doubt. Creating a rite of reconciliation means to forge a communal mind set that demands no more penance from those we have condemned than we would want demanded of us were we someday to be held accountable for all the lofty values we have preached with our lips but then denied by our insensitive and self-serving deeds.
Honorable people who have now fallen from grace, the ones we were only too eager to strip off their dignity and humanity, deserve a chance, maybe even two, to regain our trust and our respect, I pray that we will be there to greet them as jubilantly with our hearts as we were with the tar and feathers.
Marc Howard Wilson is a writer and a former rabbi.