Suh Sang Rok, age 60 and until recently vice chairman of the Sammi Group, a large South Korean conglomerate, is now a busboy at the Schoenbrunn Restaurant in Seoul. When the Sammi Group went bankrupt, reported The Wall Street Journal last April, Suh held himself responsible. Declaring "I broke the employees' dreams," he gave up his business suit, laid off his chauffeur and turned down corporate jobs, including an offer to run a restaurant chain, to become a waiter in training.
Now that is taking responsibility.You might write Suh off as eccentric. But you can't do the same for Ryutaro Hashimoto, the stolid, now former, prime minister of Japan. After suffering defeat in parliamentary elections, he resigned on July 13, declaring: "Everything is my responsibility." And he didn't stop there. "The results are attributable to my lack of ability." His farewell? "Thank you for putting up with me for a long time."
We know Hashimoto cannot run an economy. And he clearly can't run a campaign. But I don't care. He's got my vote. Have you ever heard such candor?
Not here. This is the land of the Twinkie defense, wherein the killer of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk claimed extenuation on the grounds that he'd been unbalanced by the consumption of too much junk food. (It worked! He got off with manslaughter.)
This is the land of Peter Arnett, star reporter. He lead-reports a TV special and co-signs a magazine article charging American soldiers with war crimes. Then, when the story is exposed as false, claims he "contributed not one comma" to the story. Declaring himself, in essence, not a liar, just a fraud, he escapes with his job.
This is the land of Bill Clinton, whose singular legacy is a lifetime of truth-bending profligacy free of ever having taken responsibility - and certainly not the fall - for anything. That is left for the Susan McDougals, the Jim Guy Tuckers, the Lani Guiniers of this world, more human litter than ever Daisy and Tom Buchanan left be-hind.
When Argentina invaded the Falklands, British Foreign Secretary Lord Car-ring-ton immediately resigned. Not because he was found personally culpable but simply because the disgrace happened on his watch.
The American norm is represented by Janet Reno. Testifying on the Waco fiasco that cost 85 mostly innocent lives, she declared that she took full responsibility - with no consequence to her: no resignation, no demotion, not even a reprimand. On the contrary. She received plaudits in the press for her candor. (Candor? She'd given the order to attack. She could hardly deny that.)
It is not like that everywhere. Who can forget the sight of the head of Japan Airlines bowing humbly, abjectly before relatives of victims just hours after a JAL crash? Or John Profumo, the British war secretary caught in a sex scandal in the early 1960s. He resigned and then, instead of attacking the establishment for grotesque hypocrisy, quietly became a social worker, putting in decades of service performed several social strata below that from which he had fallen. That's atonement.
How ironic that on the same day Hashimoto fell so honorably on his sword, it took an American jury - and 10 years - to finally pin responsibility on Al Sharpton and two other hucksters for defaming a man they had falsely accused of having raped Tawana Brawley. The Brawley story had long ago been exposed as a hoax. But Sharpton not only refused to recant, let alone apologize, he carried his brazen campaign against Steven Pagones right to the end. During that decade of defiance, moreover, Sharpton's public standing rose, as he was elevated from street agitator to political power broker.
The Sharpton case points out the curious way we make up for the American reluctance to fess up: We call in the lawyers. We summon judge and jury. We contrive a whole bureaucracy of adjudication to extract the truth. (And even that does not always work: See Twinkie, above. See O.J.) We create special prosecutors by the legion.
The law is a poor substitute for a forthright admission of wrongdoing. But it does expose a Sharpton. And it does get us beyond the dodges of "mistakes were made" (Ronald Reagan) or "no controlling legal authority" (Al Gore).
America, where the shirkin' comes easy, is the land of second acts. To be sure, this refusal to brand people forever for their sins is attractively forgiving. And it contributes to the fluidity and dynamism of American life. But it has its dark side. It makes for carelessness, moral carelessness. You can't help but admire a man who stands up and says "I did it. I'm sorry. I'm gone. Pass the dishrag."