Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Prufrockian Politics and the Presumption of Innocence

Dare I presume
To disturb the universe?
– T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The much fabled “presumption of innocence,” temporarily retired during the darkest days of the Rowland scandal, has been taken off the shelf and given a spit shine by leading Democrats.

Rep. William Hamzy, state chairman of the Republican Party, was trying mightily to avoid commenting on the recent troubles of Democratic senator Ernest Newton but found he could not hold his tongue after the FBI had carted off the senator’s files.

"I certainly didn't want to jump to any conclusions,” Hamzy said, “but when somebody's legislative office gets raided, that takes it to another level. Once a legislative office is raided by the FBI, there's something to this."

The FBI raided several homes and offices of people connected to Newton. According to news reports, the snoops had been following a trail of federal money paid to Newton’s sister. The FBI was also tracing state money paid to Newton’s employer, a nonprofit association called Partners For Community Inc. of Springfield. The organization operated – apparently, without approval by the relevant zoning committee – an alternative incarceration center in Stratford.

Following several FBI raids, Newton heeded calls to step down from the legislature’s public safety committee, but Hamzy felt that Newton should have given up his title of deputy president pro-tem as well.

The loyal opposition begged to differ.

President Pro Tem Donald Williams, the Democrat Party’s highest ranking leader, never ungenerous in his criticism of Rowland, felt that Newton was entitled to a presumption of innocence and should not have been stripped of his title.

Rowland, William’s pointed out, had been asked to resign only after he had admitted that he had lied about accepting gifts from state employees and contractors doing business with the state.

When applied to politics and science rather than to trials, the presumption of innocence doctrine loses much of its point. A presumption of innocence is necessary at trial because juries must render verdicts based upon facts presented in the courtroom – and no where else. The presumption of innocence serves as a bar to information coming from other sources. In science and politics, conclusions should flow from the facts, but scientific inquiry would grind to a halt if scientists were not permitted to make assumptions. Good scientists -- like good detectives, lawmakers, reporters, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers -- presume and assume, always being careful to test their best guesses by measuring them against a standard of truth.

It is safe to say that if, based upon the activity of the FBI, Hamzy “jumped” to the conclusion that something was rotten in Newton’s Denmark, he was not making a leap of faith. A reporter who suspended legitimate assumptions out of deference to the presumption of innocence doctrine, given the partial information that already has been made available through various sources, would soon be out of a job. It is the business of a good reporter to follow presumptions until they lead to reliable facts.

It is not always true that there is fire where there is smoke; still, it is imprudent – not to say dangerous – to refuse to presume that where there is smoke, there may be fire.

The presumption of innocence is a highly overrated misused doctrine, a form of special pleading used by politicians who have got caught with their fingers in the cookie jar and wish to be presumed innocent because they cannot bear to be torn prematurely from service to the public – and themselves.

The Panglossian optimist begins with the assumption that politicians, men and women who are able by force to wretch money from our wallets, are innocent until proven guilty. He is doomed to reap the whirlwind and surrender his last penny to the modern day equivalent of a highway robber. If government is force – George Washington’s definition – is it not wise to be watchful, alert, and even mistrustful of those who may misuse it to feather their own nests?

The Hobbsian view of things, which begins with watchfulness and mistrust, may end in joyful surprise; for even today there are abroad in the land politicians like George Washington, who serve the public’s interests from selfless motives.

Washington was the man who could have become king, had he wanted to. Reading his farewell to his troops, he apologized for putting on his glasses. He had grown old, he said, in the service of his country. Watching the man who led them through war to peace and liberty struggling with his glasses, the men who served with him – giants all – wept.

Hamilton and Jefferson are the Nitro and Glycerin of American politics. Both men loved Washington, and both recognized him as exceptional – the exception that proves the rule. The rule is: Most politicians are too full of themselves to be useful to others. The Hobbsian knows this, but he is prepared for the exception. And when he meets a heroic man, he is prepared to bow to him.

Is may be presumptuous to assert that neither Rowland nor Newton will be collecting many bows from posterity. But let us dare to presume.

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