Not long ago I finished reading a political memoir written by a controversial former Attorney General  who was at some pains to demonstrate his own integrity and honor, in the face of the controversy that had filled his days in the Department of Justice. During his time there had been no massive firing of all the attorneys to have a clean slate and opportunity for patronage, no massive gun sales to foreign gangs involved in drugland violence, no behavior that can be termed as shady of any kind. Even in a world as dark and murky as Washington DC, a probe of his conduct in office demonstrated he was above reproach, and yet while the controversies of his time in office had gained a great deal of attention with the punditry class of people who watch Sunday morning news shows as if they were religious television, containing messages from on high, the clearing of his conduct was not something that gained a great deal of attention at all, nor did it help the author himself regain the sort of reputation he wanted or the sort of life that people who have served as conspicuously and ably as he did find upon leaving public office. He was found to be more or less blameless apart from ordinary human frailty, but being shown to be a person of high moral character did not in any way undo the loss of reputation that he had suffered because of the political gamesmanship of others.
The question he quoted is one that haunts me personally. “To what office do I go to get my reputation back?” Where indeed? When one’s name has been dragged through the mud, and one has faced calumnies and slander , even if one’s behavior has been generally decent, if somewhat eccentric, where does one go to get one’s reputation back? I remember about four years ago or so, I was having a conversation with a shrewd and intelligent woman who was able to rather quickly realize that what had been thought of me in a particular situation was not in fact so. Yet in our conversation she said that there would be repercussions even to a false picture that had been presented, and that it would dog me for years. Indeed it has come true, one of the unfortunate prophecies uttered about my life that has. And no doubt such a situation has happened for others. It is bad enough when people who have committed great evils find themselves unable to get a clean slate and start again, but a far worse one when one’s reputation is ruined by the wickedness of others rather than one’s own store of folly and error.
The haunting question that the author I read quoted came from a former Secretary of Labor, Ray Donovan. What had prompted the sad witticism? Shortly after having left the Department of Labor, the company in which Mr. Donovan had a 50% share ran afoul of an investigation in New York City related to construction contracts and the need to subcontract work his firm had owned to minority-owned subcontractors (better trust contract services in order not to get lost here, I believe). He was indicted for fraud because the firm ended up having connections to one of New York’s mob families and because they leased equipment from his firm, and though he was acquitted of all charges, along with all of his co-defendants, there was no office he could go to in order to get his reputation back. His reputation had been torn to shreds, and his years of faithful government service largely were forgotten, despite the fact that they had been conspicuous in nature. At least he was left with other comforts–his business ventures continued to go well and he remains the part owner of a country club and the his construction firm was sold to a Spanish multinational in 2007, so at least business has been kind to him.
Reputation is one of those matters that is of particular mystery. It is so light and airy that one cannot feel it, yet it is as heavy as a millstone hanging around your neck or a chain tied to one’s feet that keeps one from escaping the flood of evil and wicked speech. It cannot be bought or sold for oneself, and yet it offers one a sort of currency in dealing with others that can either provide one the benefit of the doubt or ensure that every one of one’s actions and statements will be viewed in the most unfriendly light possible. A reputation that has taken years to build can be ruined in an instant either by one’s own actions or by the whiffs of rumor spread by others. We have cliches like where there is smoke there is a fire, but sometimes where there is smoke there is no fire, only a smoke machine put in place by an enemy to cause us trouble and misery. And sometimes there is neither justice or mercy this side of heaven, despite our fondest wishes for both, not only for ourselves but for many others as well, for to the extent that slander is able to bring any of us down, none of us are safe from its ill effects. Such is the way with evil–we ignore it at our own peril, because where it has a foothold anywhere in this world, it is a threat to anyone, no matter how high and mighty they are, or how noble and fastidious their conduct.
 See, for example: