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Scandals Grow After Too Long at the Trough

July 03, 1988|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips is the publisher of American Political Report and of Business and Public Affairs Fortnightly

WASHINGTON — Aplethora of scandals and misadventures--Pentagon contracting, the covert Iran-Contra affair, the unethical corner-cutting of Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, the conviction of former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Michael K. Deaver and lesser peccadilloes--all add up to spell November trouble for the Republicans. Yet they do so in a way that transcends the law or morality of any one particular episode. Taken in sum, they're a sign of political burnout--proof that the people to whom Americans have been entrusting national power have run out of creativity and become bogged down in greed.

What the Reaganites face--and in this election year, what the George Bush people must also confront--is a growing national feeling that the GOP occupants of Washington's executive branch have been at the trough too long. They've become too caught up in self-interest to pay attention to the public interest. There's one particularly relevant precedent. Back in 1952, when the Democrats had been in the White House for two decades, a succession of scandals and mini-scandals gave the GOP some of its highest-powered presidential campaign ammunition. "Time for a change" and "throw the rascals out" became Republican campaign slogans. Few voters could have told an inquiring reporter precisely what offense had been committed by which Democratic officeholder, but of the overall impression there was no doubt. Several congressional committees held widely publicized hearings. The more Truman-era Democrats ran out of ideas, the more Americans got to read about conflict-of-interest and influence-peddling.

As of 1988, the Republicans have essentially dominated the presidency since Richard M. Nixon's election in 1968. That's just as long as the Democrats who came to town with Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 had been in Washington when the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Pentagon procurement, Justice Department and Internal Revenue Service scandals began breaking in 1950-52. Hardly anyone remembers 1952 names such as Assistant Atty. Gen. T. Lamar Caudle and presidential aide Harry H. Vaughan, but they were forebears of 1988 names like Meese, Deaver and former Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. It's not just the Reagan Administration that has had a Pentagon scandal; so did the Truman Administration--the "5 percenters" who traded Defense Department influence, some of them working (then as now) hand in glove with military procurement officers.

Let's get to the psychological heart of the matter. The average 1988 voter is no more informed about the details of alleged corruption than the average 1952 voter. But what the situations share is a strong aroma of easy ethics and influence for hire. That would hurt any regime, but especially a 1988 Administration that has put so much emphasis on the high-mindedness of economic incentives. Conflict-of-interest situations have already begun to undermine White House defense and trade policies. And even Bush, whose personal ethics aren't subject to any doubt, has recently been accused of bad judgment. As soon as Bush named James Lake, an old GOP warhorse now lobbying for Japan, as senior communications adviser, United Auto Workers President Owen Bieber found the appointment "offensive and disgusting"--for Lake will continue to work for three Japanese industrial clients even as he advises the GOP candidate. That kind of insensitivity is right up there in Meese's league.

Historically there has been an unappreciated sophistication for the way voters chose to regard scandals. When such behavior came at the beginning of a new political period, the electorate often pushed it aside or subordinated it. That happened with the famous Teapot Dome Scandal in 1923-24. Republican Vice President Calvin Coolidge, taking over from dead President Warren G. Harding--during whose tenure the skulduggery had occurred--won a landslide victory in 1924 as if nothing had happened. The Republicans had too many other issues going for them; they were restoring post-World War I "normalcy " and ushering in Roaring '20s prosperity. A similar subordination happened in 1972; the early evidence of the Watergate scandal bothered voters but didn't dissuade them from giving Nixon a huge 61% national majority over too-far-left Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern. And for all that Watergate interrupted the conservative tide in 1974, it didn't keep it from resurging in 1978 and 1980.

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