Monday, December 09, 2002

Mark Kleiman is tussling with a few folks who resent his (and others') calling Elliott Abrams a "felon". Now, I agree completely with his point that while "innocent until proven guilty" is a perfectly appropriate standard in a criminal court, public discussions of public figures are free to use less rigorous standards of proof when judging criminality. Hence, describing Abrams as a "felon", despite his having plea-bargained his way to a couple of misdemeanors and an eventual pardon, is not unreasonable by the standards of casual (e.g., blog) conversation.

But, significantly, Kleiman also felt compelled to throw in an offhand-seeming remark that "Abrams wasn't deceiving the Congress about his sex life". In other words, it's not true that to him, a felon is a felon is a felon; allowances can be made for, say, people forced under oath to choose between mendacity and political suicide, and opting for the former, in the course of a political witch hunt decried by Jeffrey Toobin in a book as a scandalous misuse of prosecutorial power for political ends. Well, under that criterion, Abrams, too, would get the benefit of the doubt.

(Of course, Kleiman may well feel that the matters about which Abrams misled Congress were more the investigator's business than those about which a certain former president misled a certain plaintiff's lawyers. And personally, I'm inclined to agree. But then, that president didn't have to sign into law the statute that made the topic about which he was later pressured to dissemble a permissible line of investigation for sexual harassment plaintiffs. That he did suggests that by his own standards, the investigators who later caught him perjuring himself were acting legitimately.)

Hence, in the end, while I won't quibble with Kleiman for referring to Abrams as a felon, he shouldn't pretend that he's doing so merely because Abrams is, in the casual sense, a felon. More likely, it's because he objects strenuously to Abrams' past political acts and views (and quite possibly his present ones, as well). Wouldn't it be more appropriate, then, for discussions of the man to concentrate on his merits or demerits as a political figure, rather than legal hairsplitting? Isn't that what we both would wish for, after all, in our conversations about that former president with the embarrassingly similar problem?

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