December 15, 2002
SO I'VE BEEN GONE and missed the chance to post much on how justice has caught up with Michael Bellesiles, but not yet with Trent Lott.
I think that there are parallels. Oh, not in the underlying offenses. But what puzzles many about the Bellesiles affair is that Bellesiles could have put paid to it early by simply admitting error. Instead, he kept issuing inconsistent statements and whining about persecution. Lott has done something similar. If he had issued Friday's apology (except perhaps for the self-justification and self-pity) a week earlier, the whole thing would have been over. But he didn't.
Everybody has a blind spot, or a tin ear, about something. When that happens, you hope that your friends will point it out. Bellesiles, instead, had a bunch of scholars who saw themselves as members of his team rally around. By the time their defenses (which weren't based on studying the issue) petered out, Bellesiles' opportunity to confess error had passed. I think something similar probably happened with Lott -- a bunch of his friends told him it was no big deal, and that he didn't need to worry. By the time he realized they were wrong, it was too late.
I don't know if it's true, but some people say that the Bush Administration treats internal critics as disloyal. If it is true, then the Administration needs to recognize that if you surround yourselves with people who tell you you're right, then they'd better be right, too. Because you're a lot less likely to realize that you're wrong until it's too late.