Alcoholism latest public figure cop out

By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated columnist

Maybe we ought to give Prohibition another try.

Granted the attempt to outlaw drinking wasn’t exactly a success back in the 1920s, but maybe it’s time to have another go at it. Don’t we owe that much to the public figures who have become the unwitting victims of fool juice in recent months?
First, there was Mel Gibson, actor, minding his own business, tooling happily down Pacific Coast Highway, until alcohol jumped inside him and made him say terrible things about Jews.

Then, there was Mark Foley, Florida congressman, selflessly seeing to the business of the American people, until alcohol grabbed his fingers and forced them to type lewd messages to teenage boys.

Now, there is Ralph Arza, Florida state representative, going innocently along, until alcohol took control of his mouth and made it say some really naughty things.
Arza had been under fire for months after political insiders told Miami-Dade schools chief Rudy Crew, who is black, that Arza had repeatedly used the N-word to describe him. Though admitting he sometimes uses potty language, Arza swore he never used that particular word.

Then, last month, Arza learned that another legislator, Rep. Gus Barreiro, had filed a written complaint about the alleged racial slur against Crew. His response? He called Barreiro and left a profane tirade on his voice mail, using the B-word and, yes, the N-word. Then, a second man — police say he was Arza’s cousin — left three messages that went through pretty much the whole alphabet of cussing. He used the S-word, the A-word, the SOB words, the F-word, the MF-word and, again, the N-word. (It apparently didn’t matter that Barreiro is not black.) Arza’s cuz also — allegedly — repeatedly threatened to beat Barreiro up.

Arza’s explanation? The demon rum, of course.

“At times I have had difficulty controlling my emotions and anger,” he said in an e-mail to The Miami Herald. “I have noticed that this problem is made worse on those occasions when I have been drinking.” Last week, Arza resigned his office as prosecutors filed charges of witness interference against him and his cousin, Paulino Barbon Jr.

And isn’t it interesting the way alcohol seems to be the modern catch-all explanation lately for heinous behavior by public officials? Small wonder, I suppose. The booze-made-me-do-it apology has the advantage of seeming like a straightforward shouldering of responsibility, when in reality it passes responsibility along like the common cold. The victimizer becomes the victim, a poor innocent at the mercy of evil drink.

As if the feelings expressed and behaviors exposed are something external to the person, something that poured unseen from the bottle. As if Johnnie Walker insulted those Jews, Stolichnaya sent those instant messages and Bud Light left those voicemails.

Granted, the public apology has long been a soulless thing. Scandal-tainted public figures draft stilted statements of regret that somehow never manage to actually convey any regret. One is reminded of President Clinton’s “apology” for alleged campaign finance irregularities. “Mistakes were made,” he said — the implication being that the mistakes made themselves and no one on the president’s team bore any responsibility.

But Gibson, Foley and Arza add a shameless new twist: Blame the bottle. And don’t you love Arza’s statement? He has “noticed” that when he drinks, he acts a fool!? It’s always been my experience that a drunken ass is more than noticeable. Arza might as well have said, “Drinks were drunk. Calls were made. Sorrow is felt.”

Unfortunately responsibility is not accepted. But why should it be? Booze makes such a convenient scapegoat.

If I were an alcoholic, I’d be insulted. These clowns give drunks a bad name.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at:
lpitts@herald.com