We are a much more forgiving society than the one in which I grew up. And this, on balance, is progress. I recall how in high school a girl in one of my classes became pregnant. It was mentioned in hushed tones. It was a scandal - to us - of great proportions: The girl and the boy involved - he and I had been longtime chums - became outcasts. There was no road back for them, no chance for forgiveness. The last I heard about these two, they were living in poverty on the edge of town. It was shameful, the way we treated those youngsters. I felt very sorry for them. But all of us then accepted the judgment that such conduct deserved such a penalty.
All of that has changed, and thank goodness for that. In exchange for this more charitable attitude toward such teenage pregnancies we have, of course, paid a price. Their occurrence has become commonplace.
I have noticed of late how forgiving our society has become of those in the public limelight. An adviser to the president is caught up in a prostitute-related scandal. He admits it, says he's sorry, and within a few months is at the president's side again, advising a more-conservative political path. He also writes a book. The public shrugs.
A prominent TV sports announcer becomes involved in a lurid sexual adventure. He does lose his job. But 10 months later he's rehired to an important radiocast position. Forgiveness has, for the most part, taken place. The fellow will also probably write a book and make a lot of money out of the whole affair.
Along this same line, in my opinion, are the polls that show how much the president is benefiting from this new public willingness to forgive. Evidently more than half of all Americans are willing to support Mr. Clinton even if he not only had an extramarital sexual relationship in the White House but, also, lied under oath and persuaded someone else to lie under oath.
Then there's the expert opinion I so often heard and read in the analysis of the 1996 presidential election: That voters who elected Clinton had "forgiven" him for whatever personal wrongdoing he may have been involved in over the years - including sexual affairs, Whitewater financial dealing, fudging in his dealing with the draft, smoking pot, etc., etc.
All this got me to wondering the other day whether Sen. Edward Kennedy - were he a younger man - couldn't, in this present day of forgiveness, run for president. The Chappaquiddick tragedy of July 18, 1969, blighted and almost ended his political career. He couldn't shake it off when he tried to derail President Carter in the 1980 primaries. But today? I think all would be forgiven and forgotten if Mr. Kennedy would step into a campaign.
We had former Sen. Gary Hart in for breakfast recently. We probably remember his peccadillos, which, when disclosed, abruptly ended his run for the presidency in 1987. Mr. Hart reminded us how he had apologized for this, as he said, "again and again." But society was not ready to forgive. Hart's political career was over. Yet, today - were Hart of a mind to do so - he might restart his life in politics. Actually, his misstep aboard the vessel Monkey Business looks like small potatoes compared with Clinton's alleged liaisons with Monica Lewinsky in the White House.
I find this new forgiveness an important part of the more compassionate society that we have become. A good society must be compassionate. But these examples relating to public figures, taken together, are just too much forgiveness for me. A compassionate society must live by the rules - and by the law - too. There must be rules, limitations, so we can live together in a well-ordered society.
I cannot in a few - or many - words say where the line must be drawn. But I can give you a good example of where excess will take us. I read in a newsmagazine the other day of a sexually active 12-year-old boy who excused his behavior in this way: "The president does it - why shouldn't I?"