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The Decline of Scandal

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It's another sign of the blah times: The sordid details of our public figures' none too private scandals have grown beyond boring. By now, scandals have become as repetitive, predictable and standardized as the apologies for them. Just one more thing to be logged into the system at the end of the of the day's routine. Like answering your emails.

Oh, what ever happened to mink coats and satin sheets? Back streets and midnight rendezvous? Caviar and champagne? Or perhaps a crisp Pouilly-Fuisse served cold but never frosty, like Eva Marie Saint to Cary Grant in "North by Northwest."

But even to conjure such scenes these days is to be hopelessly dated. Alfred Hitchcock is definitely dead, leaving no survivors, including glamor and suspense.

Of scandal and its decline I sing. First the whole, once lush field was abandoned to the Stanley Kowalskis, who at least had an animal magnetism in Tennessee Williams' overheated sensibility.

Now scandal has become the province of pols and football coaches and the drab like. Definitely a step down despite the seven-figure contracts involved. Or maybe because of them. Money can corrupt even scandal.

Call it the corporatization of scandal, which pretty much takes any fun out of it.

Once, just once, I'd like to see some scamp caught in the act issue a different kind of statement: "I did it, I'm glad, and I won't insult your intelligence by pretending otherwise. And I'll probably keep on doing it. You know me. Now how about a bourbon and branch, easy on the branch?"

It wouldn't be an apology, but it might be something better: a model of sincerity. And stand out in this Age of the Kind-Of Apology.

The only real scandal remaining in such an age is what the apologizers have done to the language, reducing what might once have been racy dialogue and double entendre to a standardized form. A kind of 1040-A for the formally penitent, complete with a sheet of instructions and a check list.

That way, no one is left out of the apologies -- family and friends, my-dear-wife-and-children, employer and employed, "all those I've let down," flag-and-country-and-team, probably in that ascending order, plus the family dog. Just fill in the handy-dandy blanks.

The whole mechanized, now computerized and emailed process takes any remaining romance out of scandal, and devalues even the sordid by reducing it to boilerplate. (Fill in remorse here.)

Call it the Clinton Form or Gingrich Excuse or Petrino Play or by any number of other proper names that have become common nouns, very common.

. .

When it comes to scandals, supply has all but driven out demand. And the apologies for them have become mere formalities, like mass-produced thank-you notes. It is not an improvement. Seldom has English prose been so ... prosaic.

It is as if the miscreant caught in flagrante had composed his admission-and-apology with the help of spell check and a spreadsheet.

Power Point, TED and their unending successors just ain't the same as what used to be the art of the apology, which enhanced the dignity of both those who offered it and those who graciously accepted it.

All that is gone, gone. Replaced by the fatal construction, "I'm sorry but...." Of course it is the but that speaks louder than the apology.

. .

The decline of scandal is one thing, but when it becomes the decline and fall of language, all is lost.

Let's remember what is most important here: the treasure of the English tongue, which by now has been reduced to a pauper's leavings by this routinization of mea culpas.

The slovenliness of the usual affair is one thing. When it slops over into the language, something important is being lost. Maybe the most important thing.

The most striking aspect today of what was once the art of the American scandal is the complete, comprehensive, and by now predictable lack of any originality whatsoever in the apology for it.

Yet no one seems to bemoan scandal's collateral damage to the language, only the loss of some faux dignity that the principals had always faked anyway.

It is the rare individual who can keep his priorities in order when scandal raises its ugly rear. One such was a legendary copy editor and ladies' man at one of the Little Rock dailies who, as luck would have it, was tracked down at his Hot Springs hideaway by his long-suspicious wife. Confronting him, she demanded to know: "Who are you sleeping with now?"

Our exemplary editor, who knew what was truly scandalous, responded with indignation. "Whom am I sleeping with now," he corrected her in no uncertain terms. "Whom am I sleeping with now!"

The man had his priorities in order. This age doesn't.

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