Jewish World Review July 16, 2001 / 25 Tamuz, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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And the truth will set you free -- IT'S not getting into trouble that's the big problem with our politicians. We will all do that from time to time, especially adolescent males of all ages. It's how we try to get out of trouble that's the bigger problem. For it's seldom the original scandal that does a man in, but his efforts to deny it. Some of our leaders have never learned this simple lesson: When you find yourself in a hole, STOP DIGGING

I take as my text today some current and not-so-current events:

-- A president of the United States tries to cover up a third-rate burglary that he himself had nothing to do with. One step leads to another. Perjury is suborned, justice obstructed. And soon, one after another, his top aides topple. Finally the president himself is forced to resign, much to the relief of the whole country. Richard Nixon will spend the next 20 years trying to rehabilitate himself, and he'll still be summed up in people's memory by a single word: Watergate.

-- Another president of the United States carries on with a young intern but denies it -- flatly, on camera, month after month. He gives false testimony under oath, gets trapped by his own stories and a soiled blue dress and becomes the second president in American history to be impeached.

He escapes conviction, but the emblematic picture of his administration will always be the video image of Bill Clinton wagging his finger while he lies to the whole country. But on state occasions, he'll now be obliged to act as if he'll be remembered for something, anything, else. He'll spend his post-presidential years, like Richard Nixon, changing the subject. But always the sight of him will remind people of only one aspect of his public career, the way Orval Faubus here in Arkansas always had to address the one inevitable question about Central High whenever he was interviewed.

-- A popular, six-term congressman is linked with a young intern who has gone missing in Washington. His office denies that Gary Condit was having an affair with Chandra Levy, although the denials may have come with a little-noticed clinton clause tucked in here and there. Now, weeks late, the congressman is said to have told the police a different story. For the rest of his life he'll be explaining.

Will our politicians never learn? Telling the truth hurts only for a little while, and it may even heal. It's trying to dodge the truth that may haunt a man forever.

Every aspiring politician should be told the story of Alexander Hamilton and his connection with a certain Mrs. Reynolds. When a delegation from Congress confronted the country's first secretary of the Treasury with the accusation that he had conspired with one James Reynolds to manipulate the value of government bonds, Hamilton resorted to the truth.

Asked to explain his payments to Mr. Reynolds, the proud Hamilton took the congressmen into his confidence, produced all the relevant documents and explained that he was being blackmailed. It seems he had had an affair with the alluring Mrs. Reynolds. The unfortunate and imprudent but always gallant Hamilton had first been seduced by the wife, then blackmailed by the husband, doubtless working as a team.

Once the congressional delegation realized that no public funds had been misused in this personal folly of the secretary's, his interrogators agreed to hold the information in strictest confidence. (There were still gentlemen in those days.)

Today it is hard to imagine such an outcome. Especially when one realizes that the congressional delegation that questioned Mr. Hamilton consisted largely of his political enemies -- including a congressman from Virginia named James Monroe, who may have leaked the information later.

Nothing further was said about the unfortunate affair with Mrs. Reynolds until five years had passed, when an unscrupulous editor (but I repeat myself) repeated the accusation against Hamilton in a highly partisan book.

Rather than ignore the charge of financial corruption, or take refuge in vague language, Alexander Hamilton responded by himself publishing a full account of the whole, embarrassing affair. Far from lying under oath, Alexander Hamilton wasn't about to lie, period. Accused by this Reynolds of having mishandled public monies, Hamilton confessed: "My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife ... .

"This confession is not made without a blush,'' Hamilton wrote for all to read, but "I cannot be the apologist for any vice because the ardor of passion may have made it mine.''

In his article, he described what had happened truthfully yet without violating the bounds of taste, concluding:

"The bare perusal of the letters from Reynolds and his wife is sufficient to convince my greatest enemy that there is nothing worse in the affair than an irregular and indelicate amour. For this, I bow to the just censure which it merits. I have paid pretty severely for the folly, and can never recollect it without disgust and self-condemnation. It might seem affectation to say more.''

Indeed it would have seemed so. Passionate, proud, impetuous, brilliant, a man of action and thought, Hamilton could humble himself without embarrassing his readers, too. Those were his last words on the subject. There was no apology tour, no televised counseling session, no therapeutic venting. It was, as I said, a different age. The age of Burke, of Mozart, and of Hamilton.

To quote one historian, "It was an amazing performance. Never in American history has a public man showed greater candor.''

The public, honestly informed, understood. Even the Hamiltons' marriage was preserved by the grace of a tender and forgiving wife. Having chosen to sacrifice his private life in order to vindicate his public one, Alexander Hamilton had preserved both.

Hamilton was also passionate about his honor, and in the end it would do him in -- for he refused to get out of a duel with still another scoundrel by pretending that he had never doubted Aaron Burr's character. It was not in him to lie about that, either. His death was a great loss, and it ended two careers, one a great one and the other Burr's.

Alexander Hamilton would wind up not in obloquy but on the 10 dollar bill -- where he belongs, not only because of his services to the Republic in war and peace, in finance and statecraft, but because of his character. Proud and passionate to a fault, he did not deny it. He recognized in the truth not a threat but an ally that, whatever the initial pain it cost, would set him free.

The moral of the story: It's not getting into trouble that's the big problem -- we'll all do that -- but how, in trying to avoid it, we only dig ourselves deeper.

It is not a phrase I'm particularly fond of, for it endorses a virtue not for itself but for practical reasons, yet it bears repeating: Honesty is still the best policy.

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