Now, Defining Decency Down

Last week, a U.S. Senator’s 27-year congressional career crashed and burned and his life unraveled in public ignominy, and a presidential candidate announced his disgust in a way that did him no credit. The U.S. attorney general made a resignation statement containing a repulsive sentiment suffused with vanity. And in a weird addition to last

week’s jumbled sensibilities and sensitivities, the Public Broadcasting System announced that, because some station managers are afraid that the Federal Communications Commission’s decency police might take umbrage and impose fines, two versions of Ken Burns’s 14½-hour documentary “The War” will be distributed, in one of which four words of profanity will be removed. This is not because the words shockingly and wrongly suggest that soldiers in World War II sometimes used indelicate language (does no one remember what the F in the wartime acronym “snafu” stands for?), but because someone, somewhere, might be offended by that fact.

Good grief. Let’s sift the rubble.

Statements of faux contrition are a Washington literary genre, usually featuring the foggy phrase “mistakes were made.” Larry Craig’s contribution to the art of obfuscation was his apology “for the cloud placed over Idaho.” “Placed”? Who was the placer? It was, he implied, the Idaho newspaper that created the stress that caused him to plead guilty to lewd behavior.

Craig’s unraveling involved a sadness almost unfathomable to anyone who has not felt it necessary to live, as he seems to have done for years, disguising one’s nature. The fact that Craig deepened his misery with an absurd “explanation” that was, in its way, lewd increased the duty to feel compassion for him. But the presidential candidate he supported quickly pounced, issuing a statement devoid of human sympathy. Craig, said Mitt Romney, seizing yet another opportunity to stroke social conservatives, “reminds us of Mark Foley and Bill Clinton” and, “frankly, it’s disgusting.”

If Romney fails to translate his intelligence and accomplishments into the Republican nomination, one reason will be the suspicion that there is something synthetic and excessively calculating about every move in his increasingly embarrassing courtship of those who are called “values voters.” If they can be courted that way, their values need a tuneup.

And speaking of the tone-deaf, Alberto Gonzales could not even leave high office without advertising his unfitness for it. As he habitually has done, he reminded the nation that he has “lived the American Dream,” which he evidently thinks is epitomized by his success in attaching himself to a politician not known for demanding quality in assistants. Gonzales then demonstrated how uncomprehending he is of essential American values. He said: “Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father’s best days.”

Well. His father married and had eight children—nine wonderful days, days even better, one would have thought, than any of the days his son spent floundering at the Justice Department. Furthermore, Gonzales’s father had the fulfillment of a lifetime spent providing for his family. But what is any of that, Gonzales implies, compared with the satisfaction of occupying, however unsatisfactorily, a high office? This implicit disparagement of his father’s life of responsibility and self-sufficiency turns conservatism inside out. It is going to take conservatism a while to recuperate from becoming associated with such people.

In 1972, Supreme Court Justice William Brennan wanted to declare the death penalty unconstitutional as a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s proscription of “cruel and unusual” punishments. But the Constitution’s Framers clearly considered it constitutional. So Brennan simply asserted—against considerable evidence, such as public-opinion surveys and actions of state legislatures supporting capital punishment—that America’s “evolving standards of decency” had rendered the death penalty unconstitutional. Brennan’s reasoning was dubious, but standards of decency do evolve. Evolution is not, however, always elevating.

Last week, there was nationwide merriment at the expense of an 18-year-old participant in a South Carolina beauty pageant. Asked a question about why many Americans might lack elementary knowledge about the world, she got lost in syntactical tangles and spoke nonsense. Although there was not a shred of news value in it, Fox News and CNN played the tape of her mortification, and by last Friday YouTube’s presentation of it had generated more than 10 million hits. The casual cruelty of publicizing her discomfort, and the widespread entertainment pleasure derived from it, is evidence that standards of decency are evolving in the wrong direction.