At doesn't look quite as bad as the world-famous James Brown-in-a-bathrobe photo, but the Atlanta jailhouse mug shot of Ben Harbin didn't seem much like the gentle, self-effacing, serious young politician I've known since his entry into public life.
Still, the downcast look and day-old scruff of beard send an irrefutable message: What an embarrassment.
Thank God no one else was hurt when Harbin crashed his car into a utility pole in the middle of the night Saturday. It was the day of the Republican Party State Convention and related festivities in Atlanta, so I'm quite sure he also wasn't the only person to have a drink or two and get behind the wheel.
But he's the guy we all know, the one the cops say was drunk behind the wheel, and he's ours. And now he's charged with driving under the influence.
It's a tough charge, but when there's no death or serious injury involved, a DUI generally isn't considered a kiss of death for a politician's career; just ask Augusta Commissioner Andy Cheek. (Come to think of it, the real kiss of death for a politician should be any ambition of turning elected office into a career, but that's another story.)
What's so unusual about Harbin is that he's one of the rare politicians who, after an incident like this, received almost overwhelming benefit of the doubt. The most frequent reaction sounded like "Ben? Really? He's the last person I would have expected this from."
It's nice for anyone to have that sort of squeaky clean reputation - as long as you can live up to it. When you don't, even if it's a momentary stumble, you really never can get back to that previous level of respect. The taint sticks.
Harbin has become one of the more powerful elected officials in the state of Georgia, mostly by working extremely hard and keeping scandal-free. Unfortunately for him, the bigger politicians get, the more we like to see them fall.
Harbin will be damaged by this episode, but the damage probably won't come at the ballot box. To paraphrase one local attorney, no one is going to suggest throwing out the horse to get rid of the horsefly. The damage instead will be the stain on Harbin's previously clean image.
When we elect people to represent us we don't get perfection, even though we often unrealistically expect it. Instead we get flawed human beings just like us.
It's easy, especially with someone who has been as successful and scandal-free as Harbin, to lose sight of that reality. While he's been able to accomplish things for our community and our state that are far beyond the abilities of most of us - just ask the folks at Martinez-Evans Little League - he's no less subject to error than any of us.
The difference is that when Joe Sixpack has a few too many drinks and bangs his car into a utility pole, the only people who know about it are the cop who takes him to jail, the bondsman who bails him out and the attorney who tries to minimize the damage.
That regular Joe has to pose for an ugly mug shot, too. But as unflattering as those pictures are they rarely wind up, like one of a Ben Harbin or a James Brown, in the papers or on television.
Harbin has always been quick with a quip about his short stature, so he's accustomed to making jokes at his own expense. One thing is certain: For a lot of people, this episode has certainly cut him down to their size.
Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to barry.paschal at newstimesonline.com.
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