Americans are much better at tolerating than forgetting. Once a person has been labeled a villain, it takes an act of Congress for the nation to see him in a new light. The American memory runs deep and long.

That thought came to mind this week as Bill Buckner — the goat of the 1986 World Series — shed tears of joy as Boston Red Sox fans finally welcomed him back to the fold with cheers instead of jeers. It was Buckner, fans recall, who let a grounder skip through his legs, costing the Bosox their first World Series since before World War I. The man had to leave Massachusetts just to keep from being tossed into the Charles River. For 22 years, no matter the many good things he did with his life, Buckner was remembered for his one error. Now, with two world championships under their belt, Red Sox fans are finally seeing him in new light.

He should feel lucky.

Some people never get out of the American doghouse.

Remember Charles Colson? After his dust-up in the Watergate scandal, he went on to become one of the most consistent and hard-working voices for Christianity in the world. When he heads off to heaven, however, his obituary is bound to read: "Charles Colson, of Watergate fame..."

How many Americans remember, at the end of "Star Wars," that Darth Vader found redemption and a celestial glow next to his little buddy Yoda?

Not many.

Part of the problem is the media — especially the electronic media — now plays someone's bad moments over and over and over. The Buckner muffed ground ball is almost as well-known among baseball fans as Kurt Gibson limping around the bases after his game-winning homer. If Buckner had stooped an inch lower and Gibson swung a millisecond later, the two might have exchanged roles in the minds of Americans for the rest of their lives.

That's unfair, but it's the new reality. Holding a one-second gaffe against people forever is harsh, but if you haven't noticed, the world is growing harsher and filling with souls who feel cheated at the drop of a hat — or the drop of a single ground ball.

The kinder, gentler America envisioned by former President George H.W. Bush will simply have to wait.