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December 18th, 2017

Insight

The ugliest crime

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published June 10, 2015

It's nothing but a dark pool of speculation for now, even if the federal indictment of a former Speaker of the House has been made public. So let's leave Dennis Hastert himself out of this discussion; it is always dangerous to speculate in a vacuum of fact, and the mills of justice have scarcely begun to grind fine. Then there are all the legal processes that the prudent and law-respecting will wait upon before daring to pronounce judgment. There will always be quite enough kibitzers eager to issue their judgments here and now. Let's not join them.

The man at the center of this story is 73 years old now. It all happened, if it happened, when he was a high-school wrestling coach circa 1965 to '81 -- decades ago. Eons ago in politics, or in a man's life. But instead of time easing the burden, it has only increased it, weighing on conscience and law like compound interest, mounting inexorably. A cruel and unforgiving type, the blackmailer. No wonder he deserves a special position in the annals of criminality. And heartlessness.

How many sleepless nights must the blackmailer's victim endure, wondering how to cover up his payments, and whether he would be exposed, yet knowing that one bright day, or dark night, the whole story will out. As truth has a way of doing. As the ancient poet knew: "He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of G0D." Too late, too late, but it comes.

The moral of this story is an old one, so old it may be more of a proverb, a bit of folk wisdom too many have ignored at their peril: Tell the truth and shame the Devil -- early on. You'll be glad you did, sorry beyond words if you didn't.

Follow the Front Page rule: If you're contemplating some act you wouldn't want to see revealed on the front page of your local daily, stop right there. Think. And then don't do it. However great the temptation may be to tell yourself it'll just be a small thing, a one-time payment, and then the whole business will be over. It won't be. It will only have begun.

It is no surprise that there should be so much corruption in politics. Politics is the art of power, and no one ever came way from exercising it with clean hands, however pure his motives or intentions. The man now at the center of this slowly unraveling, never ceasing, always present scandal became speaker of the House himself only because of a series of scandals that culminated in the resignation of a House majority leader who had led the drive to impeach a president -- before his own extra-marital adventures were revealed.

Good old plain vanilla Dennis Hastert was going to be a relief and a comfort. And so he seemed. For years and years ... and now this.

The blackmailer never sleeps, never stops hounding and haunting his victim. Which is another reason his crime is the lowest. Not the deadliest, surely, but the lowest.

We forget that not just politics is full of corruption but life, and that corruption will out. For there is always some piece of evidence left behind. As young Jack Burden pointed out in Robert Penn Warren's classic "All the King's Men":

"For nothing is lost, nothing is ever lost. There is always the clue, the canceled check, the smear of lipstick, the footprint in the canna bed, the condom on the park path, the twitch in the old wound, the baby shoes dipped in bronze, the taint in the blood stream. And all times are one time, and all those dead in the past never lived before our definition gives them life, and out of the shadow their eyes implore us. That is what all of us historical researchers believe. And we love the truth."

Or maybe just vengeance.

Not just in life but in literature the blackmailer is held in unique contempt, and should be. See "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, he of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Of all the 56 tales about the legendary detective of 221-B Baker Street, it is the blackmailer in this story who inspires more revulsion in the great Holmes than any of the 50-odd murderers in his career.

It's not clear whether the blackmailer in the real-life case in today's headlines will himself be pursued by the authorities. He needs to be. And punished to the full extent of the law and public opinion, too. He belongs not just in the jail but under it. For the mercilessness of his crime tends to come with an admixture of unbearable self-righteousness. Which all of us would do well to resist. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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