As human beings, our natural instinct is to empathize with those who are at a low point, to extend a hand if they stumble and fall. Only the worst among us -- crooked cops, bad-guy wrestlers or Paulie Walnuts -- enjoy the idea of kicking a guy when he's down.
But Robert Torricelli is making it very hard to resist the temptation to kick his butt -- even when he's on all fours. His self-serving, teary-eyed, "I've-been-done-wrong" speech announcing the end of his reelection bid was enough to curdle even the sweetest milk of human kindness.
"There are times in life when you rise above self," said Torricelli. I waited in vain for him to add "... but this isn't one of them." Instead he went on sounding more like a mortally wounded soldier who has taken a bullet for a buddy than a disgraced politician scurrying for cover to avoid being handed his head on Election Day.
To hear the man nicknamed "the Torch" tell it, he didn't abandon the Senate race in New Jersey because he had been "severely admonished" by the Senate Ethics Committee for accepting an array of pricey gifts in exchange for political favors from businessman David Chang, now a convicted felon, or because a recently released Justice Department memo revealed that prosecutors had found "substantial corroborating evidence" that Torricelli had pocketed thousands of dollars in illegal cash and gifts.
No, he was quitting because, as he put it: "It's time for me to reclaim my life." Oh, so withdrawing from a bitterly fought contest that may determine control of the U.S. Senate a mere 36 days before the election was a lifestyle choice? How very Dr. Phil of him.
Torricelli added that he "could not stand the pain" if the focus on his highly dubious ethics would do damage to his beloved Democratic Party. If that were truly the case, why did he wait so long to pull out of the race? It's the party that couldn't stand the pain -- of having an open wound like Torricelli festering on the November ballot. The truth is, he saw a last, desperate chance to transform himself from goat to martyr and he took it.
If he really had the best interests of the party at heart, he should have pulled out back in 1998, when the first of six Torricelli campaign donors pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions to the senator. Or in the spring of 2001 when federal investigators searched his home, gathering damning evidence of the Torch's sleazy dealings. Or, at the very least, in July when the Ethics Committee released its highly critical findings.
Instead he waited until the zephyr bearing the scent of corruption had turned into a hurricane. When the polls showed his failure to be inevitable, he pulled up lame and quit his race, faking an injury rather than suffer a humiliating defeat.
While waving the white flag -- and then using it as a hankie to dry his tears -- Torricelli recited a laundry list of noble, if self-congratulatory, accomplishments, including his efforts to help abused mothers and women in need of a mammogram. What he didn't do, however, was admit that he had done anything wrong.
Oh, he tossed out a few vague mumblings about "failings on my part" and "mistakes" he had made, but -- exhibiting all the symptoms of an epidemic national disease -- the senator steadfastly refused to admit that he had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar, despite the massive pile of crumbs in his lap.
Aren't you getting tired of hearing these scumbags saying that they "aren't perfect" and that "they've made mistakes" and leaving it at that? We're supposed to feel that the Torch, the Condit and their sleaze-mates from the corporate Hall of Shame are no worse than the rest of us. Who are we to cast stones, their warped reasoning goes, when we've all made mistakes, as well? But take a second look at Torricelli's record and you'll be reaching for a rock in record time.
"I have not done the things that I have been accused of doing," he said. Yet, in the very next breath, he scolded voters for their unwillingness to look beyond his appalling betrayal of the public trust. "When did we become such an unforgiving people?" he bleated.
Hold on a second, Senator. If you haven't done anything wrong, what exactly should we be forgiving you for? Talk about eating your cake and having it too: The Torch wants us to see it in our hearts to grant him absolution without his having to repent for his transgressions. Nice deal if you can get it.
Unfortunately, that's not the way it works in the real world. Memo to Bob: The first step on the road to forgiveness is contrition. You know, a little regret, a dash of remorse, an admission that you screwed up royally and realize the errors of your ways. And it wouldn't hurt if you'd help us dig up a few more buried bodies in the Jersey Meadowlands. Who else besides Chang tried to buy a little influence? If the Torch hasn't burned his little black book, turning it over to congressional investigators would be a true public service in sharp contrast to his showy fall on the sword.
Americans really are a very forgiving people. But not when someone refuses to admit he did something -- anything -- that needs forgiving. And certainly not when they'd rather point the finger of blame at everyone but themselves.
"When did we stop believing in and trusting in each other?" asked Torricelli.
In your case, Senator, right around the time you slipped that $8,100 Rolex watch David Chang gave you onto your wrist.