Almost everyone has heard the F. Scott Fitzgerald line, "There are no second acts in American lives."
I think he was talking about second chances for people like Jay Gatsby — the wealthy, famous and beautiful.
Their wild rides only come once.
Hence, the bankrupt billionaire does not get to start over if he blows it.
But, wait a minute, he usually does.
The washed-up movie star does not get a second chance; maybe in TV.
Hold on, often he does.
The failed presidential candidate can never come back.
Ever hear of Richard Nixon? Or Joe Biden?
Even John McCain and Barry Goldwater got second chances of a kind — as lions of the Senate.
Fitzgerald didn't have it quite right.
America is the land of second chances, at least for its fortunate sons.
Frank Sinatra, Tom Brady and Col. Sanders all got second chances.
You have to have grit and pliability and luck. But reinvention is a big part of the American story.
When it comes to accusation and reputation, cancellation, and political identification, however, it's a different story. When you're dead you're dead.
My friend Sam, quoted in this space before, said to me a few years ago, "There is no longer redemption in American life." That's a very different statement than Fitzgerald's. More precise. More true.
Sam said that if Bill Cosby came clean and showed genuine remorse and contrition, he would still be ruined, and unforgiven.
Maybe that's a poor example, because the crimes were so sociopathic and horrifying and at such contrast with "America's dad." The Cosby case is tragic on so many levels.
So let's take Louis C.K., or Charlie Rose, or Garrison Keillor, or Al Franken – all tawdry sex/harassment scandals of varying degrees. Is there redemption for any of these men? Can they never be better than their worst acts or days?
How about the actor, comedian, or country singer who issues a racial slur, or several, in the heat of a dark moment, or from the depths of a bottle?
Let me be clear, I am in no way excusing or diminishing the behavior of any of these men. (All men.) And contrition must precede redemption. I am asking: Do we still believe that, beginning with remorse, a life can be turned around, and even turned into service?
I am thinking of the life of Charles Colson — a Nixon thug and henchman who started a Christian prison fellowship after he went to prison. He helped thousands of people.
And, I am thinking of a very different example — Dorothy Day. As a young woman she was a bohemian. As a mature woman she housed, and walked with, the homeless. And as an old woman, she became a saint, fully functioning in a broken world.
Granted, it is hard to imagine Louis or Charlie performing a public mea culpa or working with the homeless.
But what if they did? Would it matter?
Michael Milken changed his life. The wolf of Wall Street became a dedicated philanthropist, raising millions for cancer research. Fortune magazine called him, "the man who changed medicine."
If it is true that redemption is no longer possible, why should this be so?
Puritanism? We are at least as pornographic a society as a puritanical one.
We believe less and less in heavenly redemption, so maybe worldly redemption is hard to imagine?
Or, is our problem our growing addiction to intolerance, fueled by social media? We almost cannot help ourselves. We are hooked on tearing down heroes and toppling statues and reputations.
I think we have lost confidence in good faith and goodwill.
Another way to say this is: No one gets the benefit of the doubt any more. Not even the pope. Cynicism reigns. Any insult is permissible. And more and more of our fellow Americans are deemed beyond redemption.
Some idiot Republican senator, the other day, called Dr. Anthony Fauci "a liar and a sociopath."
He's a mensch.
We are addicted to intolerance, which we sometimes call judgment, but it is really prejudgment.
This brings me to Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
Presidents used to get a "honeymoon" — six months to a year of grace and space.
Now the knives come out the day after the election is settled: Sabotage him, ruin him, call him a liar, impeach him.
Donald Trump never had a chance with any Democrat in office. The war on Trump started election night 2016.
Now it is Joe Biden's turn at total opposition and instant demonization.
It is obvious to most Americans that Biden, who did some pretty dumb things in his own past (he had to leave one presidential race because he plagiarized), and is engaged in his own prolonged redemption song, is doing a surprisingly good job as president.
But no Republican officeholder, or pundit of the right, will be caught dead saying that, for if he did, he would be politically and socially annihilated.
Does the GOP mainstream really believe nothing but nothing good, can come out of Wilmington?
I don't think so. It's just how we play the game now.
Even mild-mannered GOP politicos and writers call Uncle Joe a phony, a liar, a dunce, a socialist: Our turn.
Call it another kind of zero tolerance. That is Mitch McConnell's mantra. Never give an inch. Never cooperate. Never give credit. Just as no liberal Democrat dared to admit that Trump's trade policy was the one the labor movement had advocated for 40 years.
Yet, McConnell sees himself as much more grown-up and civilized than Donald Trump.
Years ago, in Richard Nixon's first months in office, Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy said, "We have to give Nixon a chance, don't we?" Liberals were aghast and furious.
If a liberal Democrat had said that about Trump he would have been canceled forever — sentenced to a Siberia much colder and far away than Al Franken's.
And if a Republican, like Rob Portman or Pat Toomey, found anything well and good with our new president, less than three months into his term — say his performance on vaccinating the country and fighting a pandemic and thus saving many lives — he would feel social and political death descend upon him instantly. No more TV appearances. No think tank fellowship. No law firm or lobby job. Just the quiet of the independent voice, silenced.
We are addicted to intolerance and harsh judgment. There are still second chances for the rich and famous. The sinner, having given scandal, gets only one chance. The "other guy" in politics? Not even one.
Keith C. Burris is editor, vice president and editorial director of Block Newspapers. E-mail: email@example.com.