Two Scandals, Two Outcomes

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A U.S. "mortuary affairs collection point" in Afghanistan hangs its flags so they will have no creases when draped over troops' homebound caskets / Army photo by Jennifer Spradlin

They say war and football are alike in a lot of ways, but deep down we know that’s not true. Perhaps it’s those fundamental differences that explain why two scandals that came to light this week have been handled so differently by their respective overseers.

About 140 miles north of the Pentagon, in the pleasant little college town of State College, Penn., Pennsylvania State University dropped the ax on its legendary football coach, Joe Paterno. It seems he didn’t do enough when he learned that assistant coach Jerry Sandusky had been witnessed abusing a young boy. Meanwhile, back at the Pentagon reporters were busy pressing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta Thursday. They wanted to know how come the three managers of the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base remain on the payroll after their mishandling of the remains of troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As my colleagues drilled in on what they termed the “moral” element of what happened at Dover, I was struck by the parallels between that case and the Penn State tragedy. Let’s tally how these two cases are alike, and how they differ.

— Both involve, beyond mere wrongdoing, a kind of moral outrage. That fires up the press and sends it looking for blood. That is certainly happening in both of these cases.

— Both involve innocent victims – dead troops and living boys. The dead troops didn’t feel a thing, and have no memory of what happened to their mortal remains. But their families will live with it forever – along with the knowledge that it was done by persons in the employ of the U.S. government whose job it is to treat our dead with the utmost dignity (for some military personnel I’ve spoken with, that’s the ultimate outrage: the military has gone to great lengths to show just how well they treat the deceased, and now that heartfelt effort has been stained).

— Both involve government institutions that are leery of airing dirty laundry. At Penn State, little was done until a grand jury’s indictment of Sandusky led to his arrest last weekend and the case became public. The federal Office of Special Counsel criticized the original Air Force probe into whistleblowers’ complaints at Dover as inadequate, and didn’t inform the families involved until recently.

— Penn State football depends on the voluntary support, financial and otherwise, of fans to survive. The Pentagon, not so much. But Robert Gates showed — when scandal struck Walter Reed and the Air Force on his watch — that heads would roll if accountability were found to be lacking. It served him well, and struck a tone for the rest of his tenure. That’s not to suggest that Panetta should get rid of the folks who fouled up at Dover, but simply to note: you only get one chance, Mr. Secretary, to make a first impression,