A test of friendship

Armstrong Williams

3/27/2006 12:05:00 AM - Armstrong Williams
When I first heard the news concerning the recent arrest of Claude Allen, a high profile former adviser to the President, I was shocked. Claude Allen held a position of great power, and had real influence to shape policies that affected all American lives. Allen was a member of Washington’s inner elite, a man who moved in the highest circles of power. He was a man who, early on, made his mark in America’s greatest institutions, including Duke Law School, the Department of Health and Human Services, and ultimately, the White House itself. Allen was a much sought after speaker, a man whose time was in great demand by those who were interested in his power and his story.

Now that story has taken a turn. Allen threw all of this away for the thrill of allegedly stealing a few thousand dollars from a retail store; sometimes stealing items worth as little as two dollars and fifty cents. Allen’s actions are sad, indefensible, and humiliating not only for him and his family, but also to those that invested in him their unconditional trust. Allen’s friends found it difficult to defend his behavior. Indeed, his behavior cannot be defended. When one thinks of the devastating impact on Allen’s family, especially his four children, his actions seem all the more reprehensible.

What then, is the duty of a friend? Do we join the chorus of those denouncing Allen? Do we sever all ties? Now that he is alone, facing his own conscience as well as public and legal judgment; do we leave him alone to deal with this crisis himself?

I think not.

Obviously Mr. Allen’s behavior did not start when he became a member of the President’s senior staff. Allen has probably been wrestling with this much of his adult life. Yet even those closest to Allen would have probably never known the demons that he constantly wrestled. Now that his demons have become manifest, we, as friends, must decide what to do.

Disappointment is natural, and abandonment is tempting. Yet I believe that we are called to do more. In Proverbs we read that “a friend loveth at all times and sticketh closer than a brother.” At all times.

Although many are deeply disappointed, it is equally disappointing for friends to abandon one another during life’s most difficult times. None of us are without fault. If being faultless were the criteria for friendship, none of us would have friends. I think, in fact, that it will be the support and love of family and friends that will be essential to Allen if he is to recognize the damage he has done, make amends, and seek to build a better life.

Recent history abounds with people of power and influence who fell from grace and remain on that long road to recovery. Former President William Jefferson Clinton, Congressman William Jefferson, Martha Stewart, Jack Abramoff, and Congressman Duke Cunningham, all have been in the media spotlight of controversy, corruption, crime, and sexual misdeeds. As we think about these public figures and their standing before they fell from grace, we see that they were all celebrated, honored, and looked upon as examples of the American dream. All of them exuded power, influence, and many were admired, even emulated.

These public figures are famous examples, yet we all know of people that have gone through life-threatening, career-ending experiences that have been abandoned by so-called friends and have been forced to find out who their true friends really are.

We are all imperfect. Those who are not constantly in the public’s eye usually have the luxury of not having their imperfections exposed so widely for public view. Those who are bold enough to enter into a life of celebrity often find themselves surrounded by individuals who are not friends at all and only wish to profit from their success. When these public figures run into hard times these so-called friends often abandon them, leaving them to deal with the difficulties of their situation alone.

In his work, Nichomachean Ethics, the great philosopher, Aristotle discusses the importance of friendship. He believed that friendship is necessary to live well. He divides friendship into three species: friendships of good people, friendships based on utility and friendships based on pleasure. He argued that friendships based on utility and pleasure alone, are incomplete, while friendships of good people are complete friendships. Friendships based on utility and pleasure are relationships with contingencies, i.e. what can this person offer me? I enjoy his/her personality. However, friendships of good people are complete and thus fulfilling because both parties "wish goods to each other for each other’s own sake". If Allen had reached out to his true friends early on, they could have helped him. If Allen had been a true friend, if he had told them of his troubles--financial, emotional, or otherwise--they would have helped him through his difficulties. Now, however, his legacy has been tainted by petty theft, a sad legacy for someone who had so much promise.

I was comforted to read a recent story in the Hill discussing the strong friendship between former Rep. Duke Cunningham and Rep. Duncan Hunter. Although many Republican lawmakers have tried to distance themselves from the convicted lawmaker, Hunter has stuck by his side. Said one aide of Hunter: “Congressman Hunter is a close friend of Mr. Cunningham’s, and friends don’t abandon each other during times of difficulty.” It is such friendships that Aristotle believed to be essential to living well and it is such friendships that help all of us to overcome the dark periods in our life.