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A Tale of Two Selfish Men

Only one word can explain why Cardinal Law and Senator Lott resigned from their leadership positions after the damage had already been done.

11:00 PM, Dec 29, 2002 • By LARRY MILLER
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SOMETIMES IT'S GOOD TO BE SELFISH. That goes for all of us, collectively as well as individually.

In the collective sense, it's good for our country to be selfish, oh, maybe right about now, by saying, "Thanks just the same, but we'd really rather not wait around to be murdered, so we're going to stop you before you can."

And it's good for individuals to be selfish, here and there, as in a husband putting his foot down and insisting he just doesn't want to take the family to an expensive hotel over Christmas vacation, period. (This never works, of course, but it's important to try. No man I know of in history has ever talked his wife out of anything she wants to do. Maybe Henry VIII, but those bouts were short and not-so-sweet, and he had plenty of guys to do the dirty work while he was off falconing.) By the way, even though I'm a religious Jew, I refuse to call this time of year anything but "Christmas vacation." I don't care if everyone else calls it "December vacation" or "Snowy Time Off" or "Winterfest Pagan-Break," it's Christmastime, and that's that.

But for the most part, "selfish" is not a compliment, is it? Nor should it be. We all take it to mean that someone has put his own desires over what's right. Two men have been immensely selfish lately, to the detriment of both their causes, and it has made me not angry, but very, very sad. Okay, and angry. They are Cardinal Law and Senator Lott. At this writing, both men have resigned, but in my opinion that's too little, too late. Much too little, in fact, and much too late.

Before I tackle Cardinal Law--a distressing image for both of us--let me state my Catholic bona fides, as it were. I have, my whole life, enthusiastically supported official Catholicism starting with that skull-session back in 350. I may disagree with this or that position, and I'm acutely aware of the, er, disagreeable attitude they have had from time to time concerning my people. But over the centuries, the Church of Rome has done the lion's share (so to speak) in evangelizing the world to the word of God. I love this pope, and I love Bing Crosby, and I am a brother to all religious Christians, and I think the worst bigotry shown for a long time in the media has been against Catholics. So what I say now is not like the folks who cluck their tongues and say, "Oh, isn't this awful," but secretly love every minute.

So. Here's the thing. Law knew. He always knew. He denied it for years, and he covered it up his whole career; and you know he did. Worse, he knows he did, and, worst of all (for him), God knows he did. Time after time, as a matter of official policy, he hip-checked the victims and their families (and their nightmares), and, in return for their written promises not to say anything, he threw a few bucks onto their floors.

Why? He liked his job, and he didn't want to leave. He was--what's the word?--selfish, and he waited and weighed the world's reactions with the calmness of a drunken billionaire watching the stock-ticker at his club (a guy I hope to be someday, by the way).

And finally, only when the awful calculus told him things were looking dim, he resigned. Not because he had seen the light and decided to do the honorable thing, but because he assessed his chances and did the only thing he could. Gee, thanks.

Here's what Cardinal Law should have said a long time ago, here's what he should say now, here's what he will never say: "Every time a monster destroyed a boy's life by following his sick urges, it was horrible beyond words. And it was all infinitely worse because the offenders acted in the employ of God. I knew these things happened, and I did nothing. In fact, often I saw to it that the malefactors could continue on professionally. If it happened even once, it was the worst thing in the world, but it happened far more than once. If I thought I was helping my church by my actions, I was wrong. By these actions I might as well have been saying, 'Go ahead. I just won't look.' I cannot ask for the forgiveness of the victims, because too much time and horror has passed. Instead, I will spend the rest of my life fighting this evil as God's representative in protecting the innocent. In other words, being a priest."

Okay, now the senator. I don't know the man's heart, and, for argument's sake, let's take him at his word that he doesn't believe even a grain of--well, everything Strom Thurmond ran on in '48. That said, for years, I've never even been able to figure out what the hell Trent Lott was doing. Whenever I saw him on a Sunday show debating Senator Daschle, I thought he might as well have had a sign around his neck that said, "Knucklehead." To me, he's always been like one of the guys from the bad fraternity in "Animal House."

Now, God knows, I've done some stupid things in my life. Seriously stupid. How's walking into an Irish bar on Second Avenue at three in the morning singing "There Will Always Be An England"? I was punched out immediately. (You know you're drunk when you go to brush something off your shoulder, and it's the floor.) Then they picked me up and bought me a pint. A great joint, closed now.

But this stupid? No. And Lott wasn't even drunk (presumably). Now, again, let's say he's a dandy guy. I don't like him, but let's say he's a peach. Who cares? He represents, at the highest level, a party that's been trying to get a majority of black Americans--or any at all--to vote for them. Well, they can kiss that goodbye.

Lott's supporters kept saying he had apologized over and over, but from the first time on, each one was less effective than the one before, and the first one was a big ol' zero.

And then, in the single dumbest personal appearance since Julius Caesar left home on the fifteenth of March, Lott went on BET to insist not only that he enthusiastically supports affirmative action, but that he actually invented it. I still don't know why he didn't follow that up by standing on the steps of the Capitol and singing "Old Man River."

What angered me so much during this episode was that the only reason the guy hung on like a Gekko was that he really, really, really wanted to be Majority Leader. It was all about him, wasn't it? They needed the Jaws of Life to get the gavel out of this guy's hand. He was selfish, and he didn't give a fig about what the slow bleeding did to his honor, his party, his supposed philosophy, his country, or the still-immense issue of race.

Here's what Senator Lott should have said, here's what he should say now, here's what he will never say: "I grew up in a racist era. Big time. Not the way the word is thrown around today, but the real stuff. I love my state and my country, but we all had a lot to learn in those days. Still do. Especially me, maybe. But God knows I've changed, and I'm trying. I said things the other day that were so far beyond stupid I'd need binoculars to look back and see it, but that's not the worst. The worst is I dug up a coffin of hate and reminded America that just a blink ago some very bad people did some very bad things. And it made me look like someone I'm not. But I can't let my personal desires effect our country for even one day, so I'm stepping aside in order to manage Strom's next campaign. Just kidding."

You know what? If he had just said something truthful about history and race the first day he probably could have kept his job anyway.

Larry Miller is a contributing humorist to The Daily Standard and a writer, actor, and comedian living in Los Angeles.