The Geography of Shame

The Geography of Shame

The Geography of Shame

Politics and policy.
Feb. 22 2001 5:13 PM

The Geography of Shame

The ongoing scandal over Bill Clinton's Parthian pardons raises an important question: Is there any shame left in our nation's capital? And if so, where does one go to escape it?

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It is true that public mores in Washington seem able to forgive many kinds of misbehavior. For example, Michael Deaver and Lyn Nofziger, both convicted of offenses related to influence-peddling, are back in good odor. Deaver is an unpaid image adviser to George W. Bush. Journalists quote Nofziger (whose conviction was overturned on a technicality) as a political sage. No one has the poor taste to mention ancient run-ins with the law. On the basis of long-standing Washington precedent, Marc Rich's pardon broker Jack Quinn will soon be welcome again at Georgetown dinner parties, if he is not already.

By the same token, those accused or even convicted of other white-collar crimes related to their jobs, such as perjury and lying to Congress, can quickly recover their status as Beltway citizens in good standing. Elliott Abrams, Caspar Weinberger, John Poindexter, and the rest of the crowd pardoned by George H.W. Bush are regulars on the cocktail party circuit. A blue-collar tinge to one's crimes is, if anything, an asset. Such roughnecks as Oliver North and G. Gordon Liddy have gone on to host their own TV and radio programs.

But the point is not that there's no shame in Washington. It's that shame in Washington is an exclusively sexual concept. If you're caught for an infraction involving fornication, forget about hanging around town--you're not wanted. Gary Hart, Henry Cisneros, Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, and Dick Morris all took the hint and hit the road. With the exception of Hart, they all moved to New York, a city far more tolerant of erotic indulgence (and overindulgence).

In New York, scarlet-letter exiles from Washington find opportunities for personal redemption and career development. Monica now designs handbags sold at Barney's. Clinton is getting his community service credits by locating his base camp for $100,000 speeches in Harlem. Dick Morris is doing penance by making wild charges against his ex-clients as a columnist for the New York Post.

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It's true that Richard Nixon is something of an exception to this rule. He had to leave Washington for New York after getting drummed out of Washington for nonerotic reasons. But being a Republican and not having had sex with anyone, he wasn't really welcome in Manhattan either. After being turned down by a tony Upper East Side co-op board, Nixon fled to Saddle River, N.J., where he found comfort in his golden years. Henry ("power is the great aphrodisiac") Kissinger, on the other hand, has become a fixture of Manhattan cafe society.

In New York City, it's OK for even a Republican mayor to have a wife and a girlfriend at the same time. And a conviction for tax evasion, à la Studio 54 owners Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, is almost a badge of honor. The same goes for arrests related to drugs (the late Eric Breindel) and target practice in crowded nightclubs (Puff). In New York, excellence in the field of organized crime is merely one of the subspecies of celebrity. So what, if anything, makes you persona non grata in the Big Apple?

Surprisingly enough, you can become extremely unpopular in New York for abusing your wealth. Leona Helmsley, Imelda Marcos, Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken, Saul and Gayfried Steinberg, and (for a time) Donald Trump all managed to make themselves despised in New York's Bonfire of the Vanities era. On this basis, I would suggest that Marc Rich, despite his scandalous notoriety, would not receive a warm welcome if he tried to return. Being richer than God, in and of itself, is no problem in New York. But ripping people off to make additional billions on top of the billions you already have or spending your loot in an outrageously vulgar fashion can turn you into a figure of popular scorn and tabloid abuse.

But the greedy rich, vulgar, and otherwise are always welcome in Los Angeles. That's where Michael Milken returned upon his parole, joining his former junk bond colleague Gary Winnik and various less than decorous entertainment moguls. In L.A., forms of behavior frowned upon elsewhere--drugs, sex with minors, cosmetic surgery--are considered perfectly normal. When on parole, Robert Downey Jr. has no trouble securing a table at Morton's. Roman Polanski had to leave town for legal reasons after he was indicted for sex with a 13-year-old girl. But Polanski would surely be welcomed back if he could negotiate, say, a presidential pardon. Even plagiarists get a fresh start in Hollywood. The literary scion Jacob Epstein, who left New York after he got caught lifting passages from Martin Amis' novel The Rachel Papers, has gone on to a successful career as a Hollywood writer and producer.

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That is not to say that Los Angeles has no moral compass. O.J. Simpson was shunned there after he murdered a couple of people in cold blood. One senses that Charles Manson, too, would not be invited to A-list parties, were he to become available again. Multiple homicides, especially if the victims are aspiring actors, are severely frowned upon. Los Angeles can also be very unkind to losers, be they sports teams like the Rams and Raiders or out-of-favor performers who get exiled over the hills to the San Fernando Valley or to Las Vegas. Lastly, extreme violations of political correctness such as racism and homophobia can mean trouble for you in L.A., but again, only if you're notably unsuccessful. Mark Furman and the cops who pummeled Rodney King were well-advised to get out of town. For Eminem, they roll out a red carpet.

Being exiled from L.A. is damn near impossible. As a Beverly Hills-born colleague of mine puts it, it's like getting kicked out of Australia. But in those rare instances when the City of Angels no longer wants you, you can always head for America's own Devil's Island--Miami. According to a story that appeared in the New York Times last week, Brentwood exile O.J. is finding South Florida very accommodating, especially since state law protects his home and pension from seizure. Despite his recent arrest for "road rage," Miami treats O.J. as a star. Neighbors smile and wave; women pass him their phone numbers in bars.

In South Florida, you don't even have to be a domestic murderer. Human rights offenders from such neighboring lands as El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Haiti move there to join thriving expatriate communities. Last year, two Salvadorian generals were unlucky enough to face a civil trial in West Palm Beach for their role in killing of four American church women. The jury ruled in favor of the military men, who were judged to have behaved reasonably. This is a part of America, remember, where the rap band 2 Live Crew was acquitted on obscenity charges on the basis of "community standards." A federal appeals court ruled that the prevailing morality in Broward County, birthplace of the topless doughnut shop, was low enough to permit essentially anything. 

Which leaves the question, what sort of offenses merits expulsion from Miami? The only known way to make oneself utterly unwelcome there is to say something friendly about Fidel Castro, which leads directly to denunciations on local radio stations, accusations of homosexuality, and car bombs. Otherwise, you can stay until the authorities issue a warrant for your arrest. At which point, the next port of call is generally Caracas, Venezuela, or Zug, Switzerland.