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Yoo Can't Be Serious

Michael Schaffer is the author of One Nation Under Dog.

If John Yoo had any writerly creativity, he'd have come up with a better name for his Philadelphia Inquirer column. The possibilities are endless: "Tortured Logic." "Stress Positions." "Hints from the Gulag." But the author of the Bush administration torture memos apparently used up all his creativity in explaining why waterboarding doesn't violate America's legal obligations. So his monthly missive to the good people of greater Philadelphia is just called "Closing Arguments," which sounds like a feature that any superannuated lawyer could write. In Yoo's case, it doesn't even make any sense, since the arguments over his role in our interrogation program are just heating up.
Yoo has been writing columns for the Inky for a few years. But his presence has gotten new attention this week as Will Bunch reports that the Chapter 11-hobbled paper--where I spent four happy years--has now signed him to a contract, citing his local roots and his legal expertise. "None of this is a good enough justification for awarding a column to America's top defender of such a serious human rights violation as torture," Bunch says. He wants readers to pressure the paper to boot the torture cheerleader.
Bunch is right to say it's a disgrace--though, given the troubled state of the paper, an even bigger strike against it might be that Yoo has been a boring columnist, a run-of-the-mill neocon who tosses only the most predictable brickbats against the Obama administration. Treating readers to a monthly tantrum would be vastly more entertaining, and it would dovetail nicely with Yoo's controversial status, if not his Berkeley law professor persona.
But the bigger issue is this one: American society has never been very good at ostracism. Yoo is hardly the only toxic personality getting face-time in the media these days. Eliot Spitzer is a columnist, too. Michael Vick, soon to be sprung from prison, was in talks  with PETA about becoming a spokesman. If Elizabeth Edwards is on Oprah's couch, my hunch is that her philandering husband isn't far behind. And Dick Cheney has become a Sunday morning staple, trotted out at least as much for the undignified spectacle of his anti-Obama potshots as for whatever wisdom he may share with the likes of Bob Scheiffer.
This isn't just a facet of the modern freak-show. Last year's Frost/Nixon celebrated the interview that "got" Nixon, but the crooked ex-president still spent the last couple decades of his life as a revered elder statesman. Robert McNamara spent his 1970s running the World Bank, not such a shabby place to land given his track record.
Sure, the bill of particulars against Yoo may be more specific, and more actionable. I certainly hope someone tries to throw the book at him. But in the meantime, to keep disgraced folks like him off the op-ed pages--or our bar associations, or our prestigious law schools--will require a bigger change in our culture, which as it stands is pretty forgiving of all manner of crime and incompetence among our elites.
--Michael Schaffer