When the public turns on public figures

Gonzales, Wolfowitz, Imus, and Nifong have something in common.

What do Alberto Gonzales, Paul Wolfowitz, Don Imus, and Michael Nifong have in common? All of them are currently in trouble, their futures clouded because their natural constituencies turned on them.

Attorney General Gonzales has testified that he is sorry about the mistakes he made in the course of firing eight US attorneys, and that he has nothing to hide about the procedure used. But the Justice Department has a lot of other things to answer for in sanctioning surveillance and wiretapping.

World Bank president, Paul Wolfowitz, one of the chief architects of the Iraq invasion, has been obliged to explain about placing his girlfriend in a well-paid State Department job. Mr. Wolfowitz says he will not resign. But, girlfriend aside, Wolfowitz has been the target of staff and board members of the bank unhappy about his management and some of his decisions on lending.

Media personality Don Imus was brought down after making insulting racial references to the Rutgers women's basketball team, but that was only the latest example of such language and nasty epithets in a career that brought in millions of dollars until something happened, and a lot of people couldn't take it anymore.

And North Carolina prosecutor Michael Nifong, who was running for reelection as district attorney of Durham County in the 2006 elections, pursued a rape case against three white Duke University lacrosse players, a case that the attorney general of North Carolina found to be totally without foundation. Now Mr. Nifong faces charges of withholding evidence from the defense.

The public may abide a lot. Outrage may be a salable commodity. So-called public servants may not serve the public well. Racial insults may even draw an audience until something snaps in the public consciousness. Then you will find persons once with great power suddenly full of excuses and inadequate memories.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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