Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Justice

JUSTICE

This item just in on the ticker under a Fairbanks, Alaska, date-line: "Arnold Forbush today became the first person convicted under this city's harsh new anti-yo-yo statute. Forbush, 64, was apprehended last September 30 at 3:20 P.M., his string at full draw, twenty minutes past the municipal curfew. Hopwood Farnsworth, spokesman for Fairbanks' YoYo Patrol, commented, `We intend to press for a jail term. This guy Forbush acts as if nothing much happened.'"

No, just kidding. Fairbanks is fine. But here in Washington, D.C., we're getting a bit jumpy, jurisprudentially speaking. The powers that be--and from the convicted man's point of view, they look mighty powerful--are contemplating a nice, long lesson-teaching jail term for Franklyn C. (Lyn) Nofziger. You remember him. He is the former White House aide who was accused of calling or writing three old friends in 1982, in each case asking for a favor for a business client. These favors did not involve wine, women, controlled substances, or Hawk missiles, but according to the Feds they were improperly sought. There is a law, it seems, that forbids people like Nofziger to ask for those favors until some months after they leave government service.

This law is called--and you'll be pleased to keep your face straight--the Ethics in Government Act. As it happens, its name is not only oxymoronic but misnomeric. For virtually everybody in government is exempted from it--all congresspeople of course (we noncongresspeople consider it something of a breakthrough that Congress has not exempted itself from the income tax), all judiciary-branch people, and almost all executive-branch people. Indeed, over the entire life of the Ethnics in Government Act the Feds have found only one hide to nail under the statute: the aforesaid Franklyn C. (Lyn) Nofziger. And you thought Patrick Henry and Sam Adams had rid us of that legislative medievalism, the bill of attainder? (It's worse than that, actually. So murky was this statute that Nofziger felt obliged to seek legal clarification before doing anything after he left the White House. His lawyer assured him that he was practicing safe commercial intercourse.)

When Nofziger finally went to trial in the winter of 1988 (that's right, 1988) he was thrust before a jury of his peers--as it happened, 12 black peers from the District of Columbia, who if the law of averages means anything had voted against Ronald Reagan with aberrational intensity. The prosecution lost no opportunity to make the point that Nofziger and Reagan were politically indistinguishable. Nofziger had, after all, been one of Reagan's closest aides since the gubernatorial days in Sacramento. By the end of the five-week trial, jurors could have been forgiven for supposing that Nofziger had spent most of his year in the White House personally closing out welfare accounts. The jury voted solidly for Mondale and conviction. Even the working press, which does not shrink from the sight of a right-winger getting what's coming to him, felt that something other than justice had been done.

The flavor of the trial was captured best not by lawyers or reporters but by Nofziger's doggerel diary, A Trial Is Not Necessarily a Tribulation (rights to which, if Jim Wright's publisher shakes a leg, may still be available):

What A Bad Boy Am I

I listen carefully to every charge

And wonder why I'm still at large.

No one as criminal as me

Should be permitted to roam free.

The other day I went round to see Nofziger in his 18th Street townhouse office. His business is a uniquely Washington establishment. He produces neither steel ingots nor handmade sweaters but influence, a business that has never won a place in public affection next to the family farm. When the going was good the business rolled ahead, not in the headlong style of Mike Deaver, but with enough dash and puff to excite some envy. Buzzing with high spirits a few years ago, the firm is now a quiet, barebones operation. But Nofziger keeps plugging; a few clients have stuck with him and, even more remarkably, 1,500 friends have contributed unasked to his legal-defense fund. Emotionally, Nofziger is on hold. The judge will decide this fall whether he goes to jail.

His secretary points me upstairs and into the presence of The Felon. My first impression is that the criminal type isn't what it used to be. He is 64, survivor of a stroke five years ago, tieless, fussing with that implausible goatee. His girth is slightly more ample than ample. ("I'm a nervous eater and I have a lot to be nervous about.") As he describes the crime, I consider the punishment. There is a democratic case for bringing the high and mighty low and feeble. And Nofziger is low if not feeble. His savings are depleted, his name stained, some of his good years chewed up by the big red, white, and blue legal machine. But sending him to jail, making an example of him, teaching him another lesson? Why? To whom? About what? Enough. Enough.

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