When I see Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs blinking into the TV cameras the name of Lenny Bruce keeps springing to mind. Not because he looks like him (he doesn't) and not because he shares a New York Jewish background.
No, it's more because Goldman has entered a similar arena to the one that finished off controversial comedian Bruce. They're being prosecuted - but their guilt of the charge in question will not be that relevant in determining their fate.
Lenny Bruce is a legend now, inspiring the humour of such as Bill Hicks and Richard Pryor and foreshadowing in part what came to be known over here as Alternative Comedy. But at the time - the '60s - his aggressive humour offended the US public's sense of taste and propriety, as well as that of a critical mass of powerful politicians and bureaucrats. They went after him: he was prosecuted for crimes that weren't really crimes; when he was acquitted they just hounded him some more until they could find something that could result in a successful prosecution.
He ran - trying to go abroad but ending up in California - but he couldn't hide. In the end, it was the hounding that got him rather than any convictions: he was found dead in a hotel room (being a heroin addict didn't help, of course).
An admission of wrongdoing on the part of the authorities arrived by way of the full pardon Bruce received in 2003. But I think the lesson is that when it's sufficiently offended American propriety just has to be satisfied and any means will do - justice be hanged, at least for the meantime.
You don't have to think too hard to find other examples where a populist righteousness had resort to legally dubious methods: Prohibition (which despite being enforced by Constitutional Amendment inarguably contravenes the spirit of the Constitution), the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two, the McCarthyite black list, Cheneyite torture, to name a few. In all these instances, justice has had to wait until the heat has gone out of the politics.
I suspect we have another example shaping up before our eyes. Blankfein won't be going to jail and he won't be hounded to an early grave. But I have my doubts as to whether Goldman will be in great shape after the political-legal-media mob have finished with them, successful prosecution or no. They certainly have better lawyers and lobbyists than Lenny Bruce so may well manage to extricate themselves. But they're in an undeniably dangerous bear-pit for the moment. And as to whether they deserve to clamber out? Well, it's not as if Goldman is blameless. Lenny Bruce undoubtedly was a foul-mouthed user of hard drugs but he didn't hurt others much, if at all...