MOST of us who are not rock stars or political celebrities can only imagine what life in the meteor - the heat, the speed, the altitude, the sheer ballistic thrill - must be like. We witness the meteor's trail as the chunk of intergalactic stuff is pulled to the earth's surface.
Michael Jackson, dropped by Pepsi as he seeks some respite in France, sees his stardust settling earthward under charges of misconduct and an admission that he has become addicted to a pain killer. Cardinal Bernardin of the Chicago archdiocese, in the midst of leading his church's efforts to develop a policy on sexual misconduct by priests, is himself accused of sexual aggression toward a seminarian during the 1970s.
Ed Rollins, feted two weeks ago for engineering Republican Christine Todd Whitman's victory in the New Jersey governor's race, has been dominating Page 1s ever since he said, at a Monitor breakfast, that black leaders in New Jersey had been paid to depress black and presumably Democratic voter turnout.
Due process requires that the citizen, and not alone the media and the authorities, not be quick to judge public figures - either when attacked or when praised.
We do not yet know the veracity of any of these charges. As official inquiries are undertaken, we may know, or we may not. The following of public life requires a tolerance of ambivalence, a patient weighing of charge and denial or countercharge.
The presumption of innocence requires an active mental state, a refusal to accept assertion, and an insistence that inquiries, promptly undertaken, be given the time and resources needed to resolve the matter.
Politics, and the law that underlies it, is largely for the testing of assertions. To take an issue and not a person, NAFTA, for example, will either help or hurt the US economy/worker, according to the public debate. The view here is that it may do both, but that its goal - greater economic interaction among Mexico, the US, and Canada - is inevitable. Whether or not Congress today votes for the Bush/Clinton NAFTA plan, the forces of geography, market development, globalism, cultural strength, tend toward a lessening of trade barriers on the North American continent. This trend is not new. Earlier this century the St. Lawrence Seaway project was fiercely debated, as if opening the Great Lakes to ocean traffic somehow would have favored Yankee or Canadian interests unfairly. (Only the lamprey, and for a while, got the best of it.)
Debates test ideas. They are a form of inquiry. The view here before the Gore-Perot ``debate'' on Larry King Live was that it was unseemly for the White House to give critic Ross Perot yet another platform for attack. Should a TV call-in show substitute for due debate on the floors of Congress? The outcome, a poof in Perot's balloon, would argue otherwise.
The citizen owes public figures a high compassion for the risks they take in moving through the thin air of celebrity. The cynicism that comes so easily to us only works in concert with the forces of political gravity that always seem to be pulling the high and mighty down to earth. Why support that negativity?
The fact is, the freedom attributed to celebrity is an illusion.
There is no special moral law, ethical code, for the rich or powerful. One code of conduct applies to all, and it is based on equality, honesty, and the rights of individual decision.
But leaders have to take special care. The fawning of partisans and hostility directed at them out of rivalry are temptations that we plebeians are saved from. On cases like Jackson's and Bernardin's, the individuals should be accorded the grace of due process before any judgment is made.
Time tests assertions. NAFTA should have the opportunity to show what it can do. The Clinton team has been pressed to its highest performance yet in its promotion of it. Passage or failure would not make Clinton a hero or a bum. NAFTA is but a piece of the work that comes to Clinton on his watch. It is society's work, not his. This kind of pragmatic dispassion may be too much to ask of most citizens. But it is the only fair course, and society will be the better for it.