Do you know the Spanish word sinverguenza (seen-ver-gwen-za)? It’s a wonderful word that we don’t quite have in English: a noun meaning “a shameless person.” We ought to have such a noun. Consider two prime candidates: Bernard Madoff and Roland Burris. And perhaps a third.
Bernard (“Bernie” sounds just a bit too casual, given the enormity of his—alleged—crimes) Madoff is of course the sinverguenza who allegedly stole $50 billion of his clients’ money, including some $15 million from the Elie Wiesel Foundation. To use another indispensable Spanish word, it surely takes cojones of the shiniest brass to plunder a Holocaust-devoted charity, when one is oneself Jewish. And yet not a word of apology, any indication of shame or regret has been heard. Everyone is pointing fingers at—well, certainly at him—but also at everyone else. It took the suicide of a Frenchman to inject, finally, a sense of shame.
For Madoff, it surely takes cojones of the shiniest brass to plunder a Holocaust-devoted charity, when one is oneself Jewish.
On the night of December 22, a French aristocrat named Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet shut himself in his office on a 22nd floor above Fifth Avenue, swallowed a bunch of sleeping pills, then opened his veins with a box-cutter and bled to death. He was despondent over having lost $1.4 billion of his clients’ money that he had invested with Madoff’s firm.
His brother told The New York Times: “He had a true concept of capitalism. He felt responsible and he felt guilty. Today, in the financial world, there is no responsibility; no one wants to shoulder the blame.”
Before killing himself, M. Villehuchet had told a client, “It’s a complete nightmare.” He left a note for his brother saying, “If you ruin your friends, your clients, you have to face the consequences.”
The French word for shame is almost onomatopoeic: honte. It sounds rather like “haunt.”
What else can one do, confronted with the evidence of a man of such a rigorous conscience, but offer a whispered “Bravo”? No, I do not cheer any man’s suicide. It’s an awful tragedy all around; but his act of self-sacrifice is expiatory and—to me, anyway—ennobling. Whatever his errors cost his clients, he paid the ultimate price. When his brother scatters his ashes off the coast of Brittany this month, he can do so, amid other emotions, with some measure of fraternal pride, knowing that whatever else his brother was, at the last he proved himself a man.
As for Mr. Madoff, all we have of him is an opaque sphinx-smile, a flash of pursed lips beneath a pulled-down ball cap and the turned-up collar of an expensive, quilted coat while out for a brisk walk on Madison Avenue. What thoughts right now run through that mind? Thoughts of doing the honorable thing for causing such havoc and ruin? Is he composing a note of apology to the universe? Or wishing he were fishing on his yacht, Bull? What do you think?
Contrast M. Villehuchet’s self-reckoning, if you will, to the absurd carnival of shamelessness currently playing in Chicago, over the appointment by “Governor” Blagojevich, of Roland Burris to fill Barack Obama’s Senate seat.
Burris is a mediocrity, an Illinois party hack whose sole apparent accomplishment was to break a color barrier back when Jimmy Carter was president. (Good for him, but that’s a pretty dried laurel by now.) His justification for accepting the honor of a senatorial appointment from tainted hands? “The appointment is legal.”
Sad to say, he may actually have a point. To his credit, the Illinois secretary of state, an African-American with the Dickensian name of White, has admirably and stoutly refused to certify the malodorous appointment.
Burris’ chief ally, meanwhile, nursing a grudge against Obama for trying to take his House seat, was quick to play the race card; more like a royal flush of race cards. Anyone, he said, trying to block Burris’s path to the Senate is nothing more than a modern-day George Wallace or Bull Connor. He took care to use the word “lynch” in his summa on behalf of Mr. Burris.
But then he is only rallying to the cause of a man who has already written himself into the sinverguenza hall of shame, by erecting a tombstone of truly laughable self-glorification. It bears the seal of the (at the moment, rather less than) great state of Illinois. Below that it proclaims
First African-American in Illinois
At the bottom of what amounts to page one, it says:
S.I.U. Exchange Student to University of
Hamburg Germany 1959-60
The list is continued on Slab Two, which is headed:
OTHER MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENTS
The latest entry (cue trumpet fanfare):
Board of Directors, Illinois C.P.A. Society
First Non-CPA Member: 2000
It’s no more for me to tell someone how to write his epitaph than it is to murmur approval of a life ended in suicide, but this is “Ozymandias”—
And on that pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings,
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
—as re-written by The Onion. And demonstrates, yet again, the futility of satire in modern-day America. Twain, thou shoulds’t be living at this hour…
There was another note of sinverguenza in the news today. The Bush White House staff has begun the Augean task of spinning the Bush legacy. Karl Rove (“The Architect,” nickname: “Turd-Blossom”) weighed in the other day on an op-ed page with a list of the books Mr. Bush and he have read over the last year, the point being that Mr. Bush, despite appearances, is a thoughtful, truth-searching, and well-read man. Thank you, Karl. Whatever.
In The Washington Post, Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley reveal that Mr. Bush was never under the sway of Dick Cheney, that he has been an superb decision-maker who has always been eager to hear dissenting opinions; and still believes in the old free market, despite having turned the US economy into something more, say, Swedish-looking (my words, not theirs, but note that the US government now owns stock in 206 banks).
Mr. Hadley is adamant on one point in particular: “This is the one thing that just drives me crazy, that somehow this is an arrogant administration, an arrogant president running an arrogant police. This guy—one thing he is not is arrogant.” Nor, one presumes, ashamed of how it all turned out; though Mr. Bush speaks a bit of Spanish and may be familiar with the term.
Christopher Buckley’s books include Supreme Courtship, The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and Florence of Arabia. His journalism, satire, and criticism has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and Esquire. He was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, and the founder and editor-in-chief of Forbes FYI.