Atlantic Unbound

NPR Commentary -- May 22, 1996
by James Fallows

The Perverse Darwinism
of Public Office

Strictly speaking, Newsweek magazine did nothing wrong in the Boorda case. Faced with the same information the Newsweek editors had, most journalists, including me, would have made the same choices that they did. An allegation of unearned medals would not have mattered for most public figures, but it becomes a legitimate question when it involves a Chief of Naval Operations -- much as a disputed law review article would be relevant if it involved a justice on the Supreme Court. When it heard the allegation the magazine did not rush to publish. Instead, exactly as it should, it requested to meet Admiral Boorda to hear what he had to say. Nothing in the editors' personal or professional experience led them to foresee the consequences of that request.

Nonetheless, there were consequences. And this disastrous episode will, I believe, endure as a logically imperfect but emotionally powerful symbol of a real problem, which is the conversion of public life into a grinding machine, a charnel house, for so many people involved.

It is of course shocking when a Jeremy Boorda or Vincent Foster kills himself for reasons that apparently involve acute concern that their reputation not be besmirched. But in a way it is more shocking how rare such gestures are. The political scene is full of people who, by ordinary standards of embarrassment and shame, might well decide to find life intolerable. How many of us could stand to see about ourselves, in newspapers, what has been printed repeatedly about Bob Packwood; or to watch on TV what has been captured on police video-tape about Marian Barry; or to hear what has been said to Robert McNamara about the effects of his war; or even to read what has been alleged in affidavits by Paula Jones about President Clinton? How many people could stand to go from great prestige to prison, like Dan Rostenkowski, or to live with the label of being the only person in history to have been driven from the White House, like Richard Nixon?

We can now guess what Jeremy Boorda would have done in such circumstances. That so many public figures can, unlike him, gobble up humiliation may say something about the fundamental will-to-live that most beings possess. It may indicate that political leaders through history -- as varied as Lincoln and Nixon, Churchill and Rasputin -- achieve their power precisely by refusing ever to quit. But it may also mean that a perverse Darwinism now affects our politics. Only those people who are unusually numb to shame are willing to put themselves into this machine. We welcome the unprecedented scrutiny of today's investigative press when it catches real malefactors, but we are grinding up too many innocents, too many Boordas, along the way. His tragedy would count for something, if it shocked us into examining the reasons for this larger loss.

Copyright © 1996 by James Fallows. All Rights Reserved.