It started with Sam Antar, cousin and accomplice of the infamous Crazy Eddie who defrauded the government and investors in a colossal electronics retail scam. Then came Melvyn Weiss, the disbarred lawyer who spent a year in jail for giving kickbacks to plaintiffs in his class action suits.
This year, for the third time, I have interviewed a public person who fell from grace for the issue preceding Yom Kippur. The subject is Eliot Spitzer, whose public failures and spectacular implosion was one of the biggest shockers in the 20-pus years I’ve been covering politics. In the first two cases, the opportunities presented themselves in a timely manner, but this year I sought out the interview to continue the trend.
I can’t exactly say why , but I’m fascinated by the idea of repentance, atonement, and the attempt to reclaim one’s good name after a public downfall. These three men expressed contrition in different degrees. Antar, who as Eddie’s accountant was a key enabler of the fraud, believes he’s going to hell, even though he spent six months under house arrest, did 1,200 hours of community service, paid $30,000 in fines and has spent years volunteering his expertise to fight white collar crime. Weiss believes the case against him was overblown and no one was really harmed by his scheme, but surely wouldn’t do it over again if he had the chance.
Eliot Spitzer, who took full responsibility for his own actions when he resigned from office in 2008, says he does not spend much time reflecting on the past, is grateful for the support he’s received from his family and says that his feelings of repentance and atonement are a private matter, which is understandable.
It’s the nature of journalists to try to figure out what makes people tick and why they do the things they do. Studying the attitudes of people with regrettable and ill-fated actions is fascinating to me because of the windows into the human psyche and soul. Maybe my obsession has to do with my own guilt about foolish things I did in my youth, some of which still haunt me.
After repentance, the other theme of Yom Kippur is finding and seeking forgiveness with other people. This week I successfully patched up a disagreement with a close friend that I hadn't spoken to for over a year.
But I’m perplexed by the irreparable nature of other outstanding business. I can’t speak to my mother about not being there as often as I wished I could when she was sick, and not being with her when she died. It's hard to forgive a relative I believe has acted improperly during a very difficult time for me because that relative hasn't even asked or acknowledged any mistake. There are others with whom I exchanged perfunctory a "I hope you forgive me" although a more detailed accounting would probably be appropriate.
And I can’t make things right with a person I terribly wronged many years ago because, even if that person is still alive and I could find him, I would first have to cause him pain by telling him what happened.
As much as we emphasize engagement and rapprochement, sometimes our process of redemption and healing can only amount to leaving things alone. And sometimes the toughest act is to do what two of of my three interview subjects have done: Forgive yourself.