Redemption and second chances are central to the American ideal. Just as we think (or like to think) that anyone can pull himself or herself out of poverty or a troubled childhood to become rich and famous, we also encourage those who try, sincerely, to remake their lives and make amends.
But there's a limit to how much should be forgiven, as two widely disparate people learned this week.
Trey Radel, the Florida congressman who pled guilty to cocaine possession last year, thought, at least for a time, that he could stay in his job. To his credit, Radel didn't try to deny anything when he was caught, and he admitted he was an addict. He went into rehab, with the hope that he could recover both physically and politically. But Radel smartly decided this week to resign – an act which shows Radel has some respect for the office (if not a recognition that he could never be credible again as a congressman). We shouldn't be criminalizing addiction; we should be treating it. But the bar is higher for a congressman, who shouldn't be snorting coke when he's making life-or-death decisions affecting the lives of all Americans.
The second is Stephen Glass, the disgraced "journalist"–turned-lawyer who was denied entry this week into the California bar. Glass has made up quotes, facts and even entire stories to advance his own career as a magazine writer for The New Republic, George, Policy Review and other publications. He was rightly hounded from the magazine business, but then profited from his self-promoting misdeed by writing a book, "The Fabulist," a thinly-disguised account of his own unforgivably unprofessional and deceitful behavior.
He graduated from Georgetown Law School and passed the New York bar exam. The bar, however, turned him down for entry, citing moral shortcomings. And this week, a California panel did the same. The court panel said Glass had failed to:
establish that he engaged in truly exemplary conduct over an extended period. We conclude that on this record he has not sustained his heavy burden of demonstrating rehabilitation and fitness for the practice of law … Our review of the record indicates hypocrisy and evasiveness in Glass' testimony at the California State Bar hearing. We find it particularly disturbing that at the hearing, Glass persisted in claiming that he had made a good-faith effort to work with the magazines that published his works.
He went through many verbal twists and turns at the hearing to avoid acknowledging the obvious fact that in his New York bar application he exaggerated his level of assistance to the magazines that had published his fabrications, and that he omitted from his New York bar list of fabrications some that actually could have injured real persons… Instead of directing his efforts at serving others in the community, much of Glass' energy since the end of his journalistic career seems to have been directed at advancing his own career and financial and emotional well-being.
That's pretty damning. And one might even feel a bit sorry for Glass, who committed the transgressions while he was in his 20s. One might feel that way until hearing Glass tell the court how much pressure he was under from his parents to be successful. Glass told the court he wanted his editors "to love me, like I wanted my father to love me."
This is no excuse, and in fact merely buttresses the notion that Glass is as self-centered and self-pitying as he always was. This is not someone who has tried to right old wrongs and become a more honorable person. This is someone who still sees himself as the victim – and despite the low regard in which lawyers are sometimes held, this is not someone who ought to be playing with other people's lives in a courtroom.
Radel's failing was human, and he ought to be supported in his recovery. He just doesn't have the right to be on the public payroll as a congressman while he's dealing with his addiction. Glass, meanwhile, may never rehabilitate himself.