Saturday, February 02, 2008


When we returned from Chicago, we found Detroit enmeshed in a mayoral scandal. The Free Press, in a piece of investigative journalism reminiscent of Woodward and Bernstein, had unearthed text messages between the mayor and his chief-of-staff indicating that the testimony Mayor Kilpatrick had given at a trial last year was less than truthful and that the two of them were indeed engaged in extra-marital hi-jinks . Apparently hizzonner had been absent the day they covered perjury in Law School.

Now I am not going to give a homily here. Enough stones have been cast and the windows of my glasshouse are thin. So I am not going to write about the fact that the mayor’s select memory on the stand cost the city of Detroit $9,000,000 plus some considerable lawyers’ fees. I am not going to write about the firing of decent public servants who were doing their jobs with honesty and integrity, presumably with the acquiescence of the mayor’s stable of bodyguards. I am not going to discuss the fact that the “other woman” has resigned from her position as chief-of-staff and, since she is currently in Law School, will presumably never be allowed to practice law if the Wayne County prosecutor lines up her ducks. I am not going to mention that the mayor went “into seclusion” and got together a group of writers (from a Hollywood picket line?) who wrote a speech which was a masterpiece of obfuscation. I’m not going to mention the obvious parallels to another politician which came to mind as the mayor of Detroit sat there clutching his wife’s forgiving hand.

I am going to talk about language. Semantics. Word choice. Here are two extracts from the mayor’s address to the citizens of Detroit:

  • I ask you not to have helicopters flying around our home. I ask you to leave them alone. I am the mayor. I made the mistake. I am accountable.
  • I told my sons this past weekend that when you make a mistake you learn from it. You get up. You dust yourself off and you keep moving forward.
See that word that crept in there? Mistake. Somehow a mistake doesn’t call for atonement or remorse, compensation or forgiveness. Forget about the nine million dollars or the ruined lives. Mistakes are harmless little things, aren’t they?

I might not have labored the point had I not listened the very next day to an interview on NPR between Jack Lessenbury and Rep. Paul Condino. I missed the beginning of the broadcast and when I tracked it down, it appears that it dates back to 2006 and I didn’t follow up to see the outcome of the legislation that Rep. Condino was proposing. I am not opposed, under certain circumstances, to offererring clemency to a prisoner who committed murder as a juvenile. But in his analysis, which you can hear in the audio story, Mr. Lessenbury (who I think is a fine journalist) supports the legislation by saying it isn’t right for someone to be imprisoned for life for a mistake he committed as a juvenile. Murder as a mistake? If I were on the parole board I would want to hear an applicant admit to a crime, express sorrow and remorse, and prove he was ready to live an exemplary life, not take refuge in the word “mistake.” Same goes for the mayor.

And the title of this post? Let’s introduce a little levity here. It seems like the perfect time to tell my favorite classical anecdote. Anyone who remembers their Latin will tell you that “peccavi” is the Latin for “I have sinned.” Here’s the story, adapted from a letter to The New York Times:

The 1840's was a time of British expansion in India. There were those in Britain who doubted the wisdom of too rapid an advance, and in particular, the capture of the province of Sind, which was thought likely to lead to an overextension of lines of communication. (Sir Charles) Napier was therefore under express orders not to capture the territory. Once he discovered, however, how little resistance there was, he took the province with ease. He telegraphed back to headquarters a marvellous double entendre—Peccavi.

Enough of history, ethics and rhetoric for tonight.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What is the term for the figure of speech of speech you are using here?
You know, the one in which the speaker says that he won't mention something while he mentions it.
Ernie will be disappointed that I don't remember it.
My search for this elusive term has offered the following: paralipsis,
paralepsis antiphrasis, parasiopesis occultatio, occupatio, praeteritio, preteritio. Are any of these correct?