"If the law supposes that," said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, "the law is a ass -- a idiot."
Charles Dickens' Bumble, Oliver Twist's nemesis in the novel of the same name, should have counted his lucky stars. At least he wasn't caught up in the American judicial system of the last decade of the twentieth century.
When we were children, my generation cut its legal teeth watching episodes of Perry Mason, giving us all a good-triumphs-over-evil perspective of the Rule of Law that would have made Pollyanna proud. In the television courts where Perry did battle, virtue was always rewarded, the innocent redeemed, and the wicked exposed and punished for their crimes.
Funnily enough, as we grew older, the great legal issues of the day played themselves out in real life much as they did on television. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 swept away two centuries of inequity virtually overnight, for the first time giving African-Americans something resembling equality before the law. An unpopular war in southeast Asia that was itself patently illegal was halted in its tracks by the force of public opinion. And in 1974, a President who sanctioned grand larceny was forced from office after a series of orderly (and bipartisan) Congressional inquiries.
When finally confronted with irrefutable evidence of his dark deeds, Richard Nixon chose resignation rather than risk impeachment and almost certain Senate conviction. But recent events raise this question: what would "Tricky Dick" have done, had he come to power during this far more jaundiced age?
Would he have retained Johnny Cochran, a superb legal gymnast able to convince a jury that a bloodstained murder weapon, a motive, and an absence of alibi need not stand in the way of demonstrating a client's innocence? Or would Nixon plum for Bill Clinton's crack legal team, who convinced a majority of the Senate that lying under oath was no big deal, really, and anyway, doesn't it all hinge upon your definition of the word "is"? Or why not go straight to the top, and hire James Baker's goon squad, the guys who successfully took to the courts of Florida with the legal equivalent of a four-corners-offense, running out the clock on the recount issue and handing the presidency, on a technicality, to the popular-vote loser?
No, wherever he is today, Richard Nixon is cursing (and he liked to curse, remember) his misfortune for having been born two decades too early, to have reigned at a time when the phrase "Rule of Law" actually had some meat on its bones. When celebrity murderers went to jail for their crimes.
When Congress actually embraced and enforced standards for Presidential conduct. When Supreme Court justices put down their political agendas when they donned their judicial robes. When right and wrong were quantifiable terms, not simply two five-letter words that happened to be spelled differently.
Back then, of course, the legal process wasn't on display on CNN and CNBC 24 hours a day. Lawyers and judges are now our great contemporary celebrities. Back then, Perry Mason only came on once a week. I saw more of David Boies this past month than I did of my wife.
Something else has changed as well. Call it Hamilton Berger's Revenge, if you will, but it seems that the bad guys carry the day, every time. O.J. slipped the slammer. Clinton had his (cheese)cake and ate it too. And W. was able to ride the robe-tails of Antonin Scalia straight into the Oval Office.
No, Mr. Bumble would not be amused. The law is way more than an ass and an idiot. Its misuse has begun to eat away at the institutional foundations of this country. Each of the great "show trials" of turn-of-the-century America have contributed to a weakening of the national spirit, as more and more of our citizens embrace what Michael Wolff in New York magazine last week called a "conspiratorial view of American public life." And that's a view that does neither our country nor its people any semblance of good.
[Kenneth Neill is the founder and publisher of The Memphis Flyer.]