“Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.” So said President Obama after releasing classified documents that President Bush used to support the use of torture during interrogations (read waterboarding) of al-Qaeda operatives and others.

The premise seems to be that we are “too busy” with a sick economy, failing industries, a toxic environment, and other extreme issues to bother with prosecuting the guilty – especially those of privileged rank. There is something about the American psyche that will pursue malefactors up to a point, and then back off.

A few examples: First, we have Richard Nixon and his cohorts, including Henry Kissinger. Nixon, after resigning as president, was well on his way to being impeached and sentenced to a prison term when his successor, Gerald Ford granted him a full and unconditional pardon. After characterizing Nixon’s misdeeds as “an American tragedy in which we all played a part,” Ford said the Nixon catastrophe could “go on and on until someone puts an end to it.” Ford’s failure to pursue the righteous course cost him the 1976 election. Nixon never served a day in prison.

Next on the list is Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s vice president and thieving scoundrel who pleaded no contest to charges of extortion, tax evasion, and bribery. Agnew’s villainy began when he was a petty politician in Baltimore, and later extended to the walls of the White House. After the charges against him were filed, Agnew stubbornly refused to resign – until Alexander Haig, Nixon’s chief of staff, allegedly threatened to have Agnew assassinated if he didn’t surrender his credentials. Agnew went on to become a wealthy international trade executive. He never experienced a day of incarceration.

Henry Kissinger was accused of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity while he served in the Nixon White House. The model for “Doctor Strangelove,” Kissinger was never indicted, and continued to serve as a trusted and prized advisor to the Bush administration and anyone else who was willing to listen to and validate his opinions. Again, no trial, no jail time.
Kissinger’s only known response to these allegations: “I find them contemptible.”

President Bill Clinton, impeached by the House and acquitted by the Senate, was deemed guilty of obstruction of justice, perjury, and abuse of power. Americans have elevated Clinton to a position of adoration and homage that defies reason. So, no prison time, no shunning, just unbounded admiration for someone twice accused of sexual harassment. Revisiting abuses of the past was just too uncomfortable and time-consuming for many Americans.

But as Paul Krugman writes in The New York Times, an investigation into the use of torture allowed by the Bush administration would not call away Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner from his efforts to save the economy. Nor would it call away Peter Orszag, the budget director, from his efforts to reform health care. Nor would Energy Secretary Steven Chu be diverted from his challenge to limit climate change.

No, the real issue is America’s repeated failures to follow through in enforcing the law. Recent examples of “justice” can be termed either unavoidable or fateful. Bernard Madoff is behind bars because his crimes of deceit and avarice were so blatant and obvious there was no other option. The chief financial officer of the nearly collapsed financial giant, Freddie Mac, took his own life last month for reasons yet unknown. Newspapers such as The Washington Post speculated that David Kellermann was under intense stress over Freddie Mac’s loss of billions of dollars. The Securities and Exchange Commission investigators made it known they wanted to question Kellermann, with Freddie Mac more than sixteen years, about issues of corporate governance. And lawmakers are looking into “retention bonuses” issued to more than seven thousand Freddie Mac employees, including an $850,000 bonus earmarked for Kellermann.

Millions of Americans are said to be furious over the loss of jobs, homes, savings, and much of their future. They are not satisfied with the philosophy that the nation will suffer further if attention is focused on the perpetrators of these wrongs. As Paul Krugman pointed out, the country will not come to a standstill if a little time is devoted to smoking out the culprits who authored the current mess.

America’s tradition of granting absolution to its most flagrant evildoers goes back at least to the time of Abraham Lincoln. By all rights, Lincoln could have had Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee hanged for treason. Davis was held for a short time at Fort Monroe, while Lee was never prosecuted. The Washington Times notes that exacting revenge for unpopular policies is the norm in the third world, but not in America. The paper concludes: “We count on cooler heads to prevail when raw emotion threatens to overwhelm sobriety and the undisciplined senses.”

So those expecting a thorough and meticulous investigation of America’s torture techniques, the inept handling of investors’ dollars, why the icons of the automotive industry are foundering, and why some former homeowners are living in the boxes their refrigerators came in, are heading for a harsh disappointment. There has never been a tradition of a new administration holding the former accountable for its crimes – although President Obama has made frequent references to the “mess” he inherited from the Bush White House.

There’s a reason, if you think about it, why General Motors and Chrysler are struggling to survive, while German and Japanese auto makers, while sagging in sales, show no inclination to declare bankruptcy. It is called the Marshall Plan.


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