Tuesday, July 10, 2007

White Collar

Earlier this year, the former Democratic speaker of the N.C. House, Jim Black, got indicted for influence peddling. Jim Black is not quite a Tom Delay-level sleazeball, but he lived on the edge of campaign finance laws, and beyond the edge, for a long time, so the indictment was no surprise and richly deserved. Black's antics included having contributors write checks with the Payee line left blank. He used the resulting slush fund for such things as bribing a Republican legislator to defect to the Democrats (and thereby make Black the speaker). His sentencing hearing is coming up soon.

Here is what we read in this morning's paper:

RALEIGH - Instead of going to prison, former House Speaker Jim Black wants to give free eye exams and glasses to the poor.

In court papers filed Monday, Black submitted an 11-page business plan for an optometry clinic and said it could be running within days. He has been an optometrist more than 40 years.

Black suggested he could give exams five days a week, 2,000 exams a year, at a benefit to taxpayers of $543,882. He would also be on house arrest.

"This plan would allow Dr. Black to serve his punishment in a way that is beneficial to the community at large," wrote his attorneys, Ken Bell and Jack Knight of Charlotte. "This plan would save the taxpayers considerable money, and would provide indigent children with corrective vision services that would otherwise go

This idea seems to be going nowhere, as one would expect with a federal charge against a Democratic politician under the Bush Justice Department. And it shouldn't go anywhere. But I'm embarrassed to say, I was a little impressed by the idea when I first read it. It's not every defendant that submits a business plan to his sentencing judge!

But it puts me in mind of the Scooter Libby matter. One of the crazy-making things about it was all Scooter's allies in Washington pleading for leniency because of who Libby is. A man of stature, a family man, an ornament of polite society, a witty conversationalist. One of us! Give Jim Black this much credit: he's offering to roll up his sleeves and buy special treatment with tangible services; he's appealing to the financial burden on the taxpayer, not just the specialness of Jim Black.

The Free Scooter crowd also argues the supposed triviality of the perjury charge; "no underlying crime," don't you know. I freely admit, Dick Cheney, not Scooter Libby, is the person who most deserves to go to jail for blowing Valerie Plame's CIA cover. Some of my anger at Libby is a desire for somebody to pay for the Plame-Wilson scandal. But Libby volunteered for scapegoat duty when he eagerly and effectively served his boss's legal and political interests by lying to a grand jury and obstructing the investigation of Cheney. He perjured himself to protect the higher-ups in a strategic and clearly premeditated way. How can we not punish this? If Scooter Libby thought he was serving a greater good than mere legality, he should accept the legal consequences.

In football, a pulling guard can block for the ball carrier, but then the guard has to take the hit. This is not to say the Plame matter is simply political football, as Richard Cohen and others would have you think. This is not "the criminalization of politics." The underlying crime, the real-world consequences, were that the truth about the Niger-yellowcake story was obscured (though the story was so flimsy that even the White House had to drop it in short order); and perhaps more importantly, that the career of an actual anti-nuclear proliferation expert was torpedoed. Wing-tipped ratfuckers like Scooter Libby are way more plentiful than experienced anti-WMD cops like Valerie Plame. Pundits and politicos in the Bush Era tend to forget, at some point the goings-on in Washington mean more than fixing the blame for a PR snafu. At some point it has to do with protecting the national security of the United States.

My point in merging Jim Black and Scooter Libby is this: White collar crime is crime. It counts. There's a disturbing tendency among people in this country to feel that only street crimes and maybe drug crimes count. Even some liberals of my acquaintance, who at least are libertarian on the drug issue, argued that imprisoning Scooter Libby was a waste of resources because Libby wasn't a threat to anybody, he doesn't need to be removed from society for the sake of public safety.

The easy retort is that of course Libby is a threat; he's a significant threat to US military personnel who get sent to misbegotten wars thanks to the manipulations of the OVP. Libby's a much greater threat to the public good than some small-time thief or dealer. More abstractly, our court systems are for more than isolating "dangerous" people in a cost-effective way. ("Cost of imprisonment" arguments are insidious. Lynch mobs for jaywalkers would be cost-effective, after all.) The purpose of courts is to maintain the social contract and mete out punishments fairly and impartially.

Actually, I just this second realized that Black's lawyers would never have filed a motion like this if not for the Libby thing just last week. It's the temporal juxtaposition.

Katharine Lee Bates + Ray Charles

The Scooter Libby thing early last week (Bush’s announcement that he was commuting Libby’s jail term) angered and depressed me—it didn’t really surprise me, but nonetheless it gnawed at me, like a lot of political news stories in the past four years. Part of what was galling was the timing of it: the week of Independence Day, the week when I make an effort to reacquaint myself with patriotism. On Tuesday the Third I was indulging in some snide remarks: "Nation of laws, blessings of liberty, yeah right." Not even clever snide remarks, as you can see.

Despite that, the family and I had a nice Fourth. We were in Swansboro, NC, a quaint little coastal town on the White Oak River, which serves good seafood and puts on a nice fireworks show. Also, kicking back by the swimming pool on the Fifth, we watched Harrier jets making low, slow turns as they approached the Marine Corps’s Auxiliary Landing Field in Cape Carteret. A guy at the pool told us that the USS Iwo Jima had just put into port, returning from the Persian Gulf. Those fighter jets are loud, I wouldn’t enjoy experiencing them every day, but they are impressive, and on this occasion it was good to see and hear them.

Here is something else that improved my mood: I’m not a huge sucker for patriotic songs, but I make an exception for Ray Charles’s rendition of "America The Beautiful," which we heard on the radio. Good stuff. Then in church on Sunday we got to sing ATB. I reflected on this verse, which isn’t one I tend to remember (and which Ray Charles skips in his version):

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

Katharine Lee Bates wrote the words in 1893, with later revisions. She was initially inspired by a trip to the summit of Pike’s Peak. I draw hope from thinking that the sentiment of her words will prove more enduring than the small-mindedness of the incumbent White House gang.