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IN A WORD, CONGRESSMAN SEEKS SALVATION

Congressman Peeples is considering contrite. He's in the airport lounge waiting for his flight home, the dictionary spread across his lap. They're all there, waiting for their flights home - more congressmen than you can shake a scandal at.

"Contrite. 1. Caused by or showing sincere remorse." Not bad, Peeples is thinking, and he rolls the words around on his tongue just to get the feel of them. "Friends," he's saying, not quite out loud, "I come to you today sincerely remorseful." That might do it."2. filled with a sense of guilt and" - Wait a minute! thinks Peeples - who said anything about feeling guilty? I start feeling guilty, somebody'll start thinking I've done something wrong. And what happens then?

Peeples knows what happens then: He has to find another job. But it's all so unfair! Sure, he used the House bank - they all did, that's what it was there for. And sure, he wrote a few checks - well, more than a few, to be precise about it - for more than he had in his account, technically speaking, at some particular arbitrary moment. But guilty? He just doesn't feel guilty.

So forget contrite. Apologetic is still the front-runner: "1. sorry, regretful." Short and sweet. "Friends," he says, "I come to you today a sorry congressman." Something's wrong there, Peeples is thinking; it sounded better last time.

Words - that's what he was telling his speechwriter before he left for the airport - I have to use exactly the right words. And what did his speechwriter do? Handed him a dictionary!

All the good excuses were already taken. So were all the good jokes. Here he was instead, with a dictionary in his lap and a messy feeling in the pit of his stomach.

Outrageous.

Could he be outraged? Could he lash out, hurl charges, demand justice? "Leaks - that's the real issue here! Who leaked that list of -"

He was never much good at outrage.

Victimized? A dedicated public servant's career in jeopardy because of a few hundred innocent mistakes? A hard sell. He'd already seen the first bumper stickers: "Peeples Bounced Us, Let's Bounce Peeples." And the talk shows back home are just getting geared up. Peeples riffles through the dictionary, still searching for the right word.

Evasive. Repentant. Nonchalant.

Patient.

A smile crosses Peeples' lips for the first time in days. Patient - of course! "1. bearing pains or trials calmly or without complaint. 2. not hasty or impetuous." It's a long, long time from March to November. Today it's the bank, but by Election Day, Peeples tells himself, it'll be something else entirely. Nobody'll even remember the bank.

Is this a great country or what? Pee-ples is thinking. He finds the nearest trash can, tosses that dictionary away.

They're calling his plane.