Jewish World Review Aug. 12, 1999 /30 Av, 5759
On the one hand, there's Sam Spade, nuts about the girl he's sending to San Quentin (Hammett's The Maltese Falcon). On the other, there's Hillary Clinton and her self-interested forgivingness (Brown's Talk). Loyalty to those we love we regard as a good thing, but how far should friendship go?
For some, all the way. It was because "they had love" and friendship that Hillary forgave Bill for injuring her. And from understanding the abuse he suffered as a child (immediately qualified by a volley of a dozen press releases) she pitied him. "You just don't walk away if you love someone-you help the person," she said.
But Hillary was only an indirect victim of her husband's antics when out on the tiles. To her it might have been a "sin of weakness," as she said, and not a "sin of malice." Others might not agree: those who were truly hurt were his mistresses, willing or not, and the men and women who tried to protect them. Often their favors were procured in dubious ways: a na´ve women were overcome by power, money, an aura of authority (all paid for by the taxpayers), and in one instance, probably actual force. Sins of malice her husband did indeed commit, but to them the First Lady is indifferent because others, not her, were their victim.
But friendship, particularly in high places, is a public thing. The Italian diplomat Castligione 500 years ago warned about this in The Courtier: "Anyone who knows one of a pair of close friends at once imagines the other to be of the same sort."
Hillary forgives Bill for what he did to their marriage-perhaps not so difficult to do when to her their marriage has brought her fame, fortune, and a great career, none of which she could have earned on her own. Ought she to forgive him for what he did to the women whose company, willing or not, he enjoyed? Hillary might think this a ridiculous question: his victims, after all, were also enemies to her marriage. But we all concentrate on how his actions affected not his victims but his relationship with wife and daughter-whether they, and we, can still think of Bill with love and empathy.
It's a fairly recent development that love or friendship requires that we excuse the wicked actions of those whom we love. Mark Steyn brilliantly pointed out in the Spectator last week that the "Kennedy curse" involves a price paid by a squadron of dead, maimed, and allegedly raped women, whose names Dan Rather hardly remembers.
The "Summer of Sam," 1977, was for me the most vivid instance of how friendship for a sympathetic criminal crowds out any compassion for his victims: the "Yale Murder." In a much more intimate and complex crime than Berkowitz's nutty spree, Bonnie Garland, an undergraduate, was killed by her occasional boyfriend and fellow-Yalie Richard Herrin, whom I had met. Entertaining him at her parents' house in Westchester County, Bonnie gently told Richard that she didn't want to date him exclusively, and then she went to sleep, expecting that he would join her. Instead, he took a hammer and broke open her skull with it.
In itself this is hardly a new story. Any of us might feel Herrin's pain at being rejected, his jealousy and selfishness. But these feelings acted on an evil man in a different way than it does, thank G-d, on most of us. But it is what happened next that is so extraordinary. After pulling the hammer out of Bonnie's head, Herrin drove aimlessly, examining his conscience, deciding whether he wanted himself to die (he decided, without much struggle, that he didn't), and finally at daybreak surrendered to a priest called Father Tartaglia at an upstate church. All this time, Bonnie was alive. Had Herrin, had anyone, called the police, her life could have been saved. But no one had time to think about Bonnie. The priest was only the first of many who felt no anger or revulsion at Herrin's crime, only sympathy for this troubled young man.
The Yale community, and particularly the Catholic Chaplains at St. Thomas More Chapel, strenuously defended Herrin. As a humble teacher there I constantly heard the litany: "Richard was a friend. Bonnie's dead already-we can still help Richard." I told my students the next semester that I had dropped friends for all sorts of reasons-- casual cruelty or even just rudeness to others-and not one of my ex-friends had actually murdered anyone. Normally my students considered themselves far more moral than I-but what about now? This argument had no force against the glamor of Herrin's suffering, his attacks of conscience, his expressions of remorse. No one had any feelings left over for the dead Bonnie and her parents.
Friendship used to be something that was earned-one strove for friendship
with those one admired. Generations of sages-Jewish, pagan, Christian-- urged
us to make friendship a matter of ethics rather than sentiment or clan
allegiences. The Clintons, with their cult of FOBs and FOHs, the loving
community who supported Richard Herrin at Yale while regarding Bonnie's
grieving, angry parents with distaste-these represent friendship's descent
into tribalism, superstition, vendetta and revenge. What Sam Spade found so
inadequate now justifies virtually anything. On one side, the facts; "on the
other side, we've got what? All we've got is the fact that maybe you love me
and maybe I love
JWR contributor Sam Schulman is deputy editor of Taki's Top Drawer, appearing in New York Press, and was formerly publisher of Wigwag and a professor of English at Boston University. You may contact him by clicking here.