There are Americans whose striking achievements cause one to cheer out loud. There are others whose stunning acts of sleaziness provoke despair or fury. I want to cite three of each, three stars and three slugs.
The stars are aviator Steve Fossett, businesswoman Martha Stewart, and dog-sledder Rachel Scdoris.
The slugs include House of Representatives Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, and members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The aviator, Mr. Fossett, 60, flew his GlobalFlyer around the world solo, with no stops for refueling, in the first such flight. He landed in Kansas after traveling 23,000 miles and remaining aloft 67 hours. He was almost out of gas. He gets silver stars for imagination, courage, and perseverance.
Miss Perfect the Jailbird, Martha Stewart, left prison last week. Anyone who never spent any time in the slammer might think that she had it easy, that West Virginia's Alderson Prison for Women is the Toledo Club of detention facilities. While Alderson isn't Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, jail it certainly is.
Her achievement is that she stood trial, was found guilty, took her medicine, and went inside promptly. Compare her with the two poster boys of Enron, founder Kenneth Lay and Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Skilling. Since Enron's scandal burst in 2001, Mr. Lay and Mr. Skilling, after every legal maneuver under the sun, might finally go on trial next year.
That Stewart's company's stock is doing well now is an expression of confidence and approval. Americans believe in crime and punishment, and redemption. She is benefiting from those basic American principles, as well she should.
The third star is a little-known one, Rachel Scdoris, 20, a vision-impaired dog-sledder competing in the annual Iditarod Dog Sled Race. (Toledo's claim to it, based on this winter's weather, having been rejected, the race will be in Alaska this as usual). Racing through the snow behind a team of barking huskies, unable to see them or what's ahead, is enough to scare the life out of anyone, including Mr. Fossett. But Ms. Scdoris is doing it, and we push back our parka hoods to her, a star, a distinguished human being.
Now to the slugs, those current silver-trailers. First is House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, implicated in a trial under way in Austin. It involves charges of illegal use of campaign funds and government resources. In May, 2003, Mr. DeLay allegedly ordered Federal Aviation Authority officials to pursue Texas legislators who had fled to nearby Oklahoma. The lawmakers were trying to avoid being counted in a quorum to make it possible for him to gerrymander Texas electoral districts to the benefit of the Republicans.
Mr. DeLay managed to arm-twist the U.S. House of Representatives in advance of the trial into changing its rules, aiming to erase his accountability as House majority leader if he is convicted, although that action was ultimately reversed. Texas politics is not known for its cleanliness and honesty. The rest of us can accept that as the way things are done there if Texans like it. But Mr. DeLay's imposition of that approach on the U.S. House of Representatives, with the crudeness and ugliness of the charges in Austin, clearly qualifies him for a slug award.
The second slug is Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan. Mr. Greenspan, theoretically protected from having to bow before Washington's political masters by a 14-year term, has instead become a consummate Washington insider, no longer interested in the well-being of anyone outside the Beltway. Because President and Mrs. Bush don't go out much, Mr. Greenspan and his wife, Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, are the stars of the Washington A-list. With that status has come Mr. Greenspan's curious support for some of Mr. Bush's most destructive economic policies: the tax cuts for the rich, which produced America's catastrophic budget deficits, and his program to destroy Social Security.
The third slug is a set: those among the 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who gave the Best Actress award to Hilary Swank of Million Dollar Baby instead of Imelda Staunton as an abortionist in Vera Drake. Anyone who has seen the two films can see the difference. But if the academy awarded Ms. Staunton, it would have incurred the anti-choice crowd's wrath. Members were not ready for that, so they get silver slug trails for their lack of integrity.
There you have the best and the worst of recent weeks, according to me. The best are inspiring. The worst are disappointing, to say the least. Fortunately, there are both, for hope-sustaining balance.
Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org