The Big Easy, by C. E. Chaffin

I remember when public personages were powerful enough to keep the snooping newshounds away; whomever Kennedy bedded was not fair game. Then came the era when lies could be used against accusations of substance without fear of betrayal by loyalists or a discovery by the press. This second strategy hit bottom during Nixon’s late tenure and certainly failed Clinton. There was also a milder way to avoid imputations of wrongdoing, as during the Iran-Contra trials, where memory simply failed. “Mr. Chairman, I don’t recall.” In William Casey’s case it might have been true, since the former CIA director later died of a brain tumor. Something similar could be said about Reagan, since we don’t know the exact onset of his Alzheimer’s, so that in his case it was not who knew what when, but who didn’t know what when and how much more was forgotten in the interim.

Sadly, such days are over. As in the recent examples of Mark Foley and Gavin Newsom (the mayor of San Francisco), the modern excuse is no more than Flip Wilson’s “the Devil made me do it”—for Foley and Newsom, “demon rum.” Betty Ford and Kitty Dukakis likely had legitimate excuses for their pill- popping, but Congressman Foley and Mayor Newsom do not have the same legitimacy when it comes to alcohol. Newsom, after his divorce, was occasionally seen at a bar nursing a glass of white wine, and once, apparently, exhibited “slurring of speech” publicly. 50 years ago the public attitude would have been, “Cut him some slack. He’s going through a divorce.” But that won’t play nowadays.

Foley’s was outed by a homosexual partner, but I don’t recall alcohol being part of the equation. The convenience of an addiction in explaining predatory homosexual behavior (towards the Congressional pages) is laughable. What, Foley has a couple of shots, his defenses crumble, and he becomes an unwitting homosexual? Neither Newsom nor Foley were accused of being asleep at the wheel in their respective positions prior to the lurid discoveries both of Foley’s intemperate predilections and Newsom’s betrayal of his friend and campaign manager—by carrying on with his wife—a woman who was one of his secretaries, making the whole affair as clichéd as an old Dagwood and Blondie strip.

I am a doctor and was granted my degree over 25 years ago. In that time the only thing to keep pace with technology is the medicalization of society. It used to be that most of us had to own up to our moral failures when caught; now it is much easier for those in the public eye to blame the disease model of addiction and seek solace in treatment centers for what I call “the temptation-impaired”—not the morally impaired, mind you.

Once a moral problem has been medicalized, all the shame and blame are removed. You are not at fault. As by a demon, you have been possessed by a behavior over which you have experienced a complete loss of willpower, and that behavior is not confined to substance abuse anymore, but includes gambling, sexual addiction and overeating, not to mention a legion of other dysfunctions. There are over 100 twelve-step programs extant to treat such behavioral impairments. (Notice how the language has changed, as if a “behavioral impairment” is some kind of software that needs to be replaced in the malfunctioning human.)

Much of this attitude we owe to AA, which unequivocally embraces the disease model of self-destructive behavior. The group has done a great deal of good in this world, but what few remember is that in working the program, admitting to a disease does not get one off the moral hook. One must confess one’s failings, make amends, and live an honest life as a result of the initial confession of helplessness. The attractive part of AA, indeed any twelve-step program, is the loss leader at the beginning—“It’s not your fault. You have a disease.” Afterwards the moral requirements become quite rigorous. So AA and other twelve-step programs, rightly practiced, are not an escape but an ongoing admission of moral failure, not medical failure.

But this is not what we see in the press. One gets the impression from celebrities and politicians that a visit to a 30-day inpatient program is the solution to everything, and that they come out clean and sober as a new-minted coin. Afterwards we don’t hear about their problem much (unless they get caught in another compromising position).

Society, for the most part, seems to blandly accept seeking “treatment” as a form of repentance, and perhaps some popular icons do experience a genuine epiphany; more often I think treatment is merely an evasion of public obloquy. Nowadays “right” and “wrong” have been subsumed by “under treatment” or “not under treatment.” Sinners have never had it so good.


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Gordon Massman
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