John Leo

In politics, Dick Morris was briefly disgraced in 1996 by a prostitute's claim that he had let her eavesdrop on his phone conversations with President Clinton. He is now back as a respected political commentator. President George W. Bush recycled and honored Admiral John Poindexter and others involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, as if their criminal acts were of no consequence. Poindexter's convictions, overturned on a technicality (that Congress had granted immunity for testimony), included conspiracy, lying to Congress and destroying evidence.

Or take the colorful career of Al Sharpton. In a short-memory culture, we are not supposed to recall that Sharpton was an unprincipled racial agitator in New York. He was a co-perpetrator of the Tawana Brawley rape hoax. He also helped inflame a dispute between a Jewish storeowner and a black tenant. Picketers from Sharpton's National Action Network, sometimes joined by Sharpton himself, screamed about "bloodsucking Jews" and "Jew bastards," threatening to burn down the building. After weeks of this, one of the protesters ran into the building, shot three people and ignited a fire than left seven dead. Sharpton's role in this bloodbath disappeared down the memory hole. Now he is a "civil rights leader."

Not all recycling works. For a while, it appeared as though the Unabomber would be positioned as a serious, though murderous, critic of American culture. But it didn't happen. Tonya Harding's boxing career is just a joke she never got. And no network has yet tried to hire Joey Buttafuocco as a correspondent. But the rapid refurbishing of appalling people is a constant threat in a culture with no higher standard than non-jugmentalism. Whenever they can, serious people should fight this process.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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