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Who Melts When the Political Heat Is On? : Public life: In Washington, officials get scorched by charges of ethics violations, power mongering, lying--and worse. Veterans figure out a way to get over it and get back in the game.

August 19, 1993|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

During his days as Speaker of the House, former Congressman Jim Wright found a way to lower his routinely high blood pressure: He'd close his eyes and imagine a lovely scene near his ranch on the Guadalupe River in Texas.

So in 1989, when his turn came for a public flogging after a House committee accused him of 69 counts of ethical misconduct, the Democrat tried to calm himself by envisioning that same limpid pool, those beautiful trees, that dramatic sky.

After a year, however, Wright says he could no longer "psych myself out."

He fled to Texas.

Washington scorches public officials every season. Winter, spring, summer and fall bring new charges of ethics violations, power mongering, felonious crime and/or lying.

The media and political opposition seize the allegations and replay them until Washington assumes the worst qualities of a small town and loses most redeeming virtues.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 21, 1993 Home Edition Part A Page 2 Column 1 National Desk 2 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
Coelho Allegations--A story published by The Times in Thursday editions stated erroneously that a House committee had cleared former Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced) of allegations of ethical misconduct two years after he resigned in 1989. Coelho's case was never investigated by a House committee because his resignation precluded such a probe. The Justice Department investigated charges of financial misconduct by Coelho, but no charges were brought.

Yet if Washington relishes engaging in reputation homicide--as White House deputy counsel Vince Foster Jr. alleged in a note he left before committing suicide last month--how is it that Richard Nixon, once disgraced and now in his 80s, still advises Presidents?

And why are ex-Congressman Tony Coelho and former Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger comfortably working Washington as advisers and consultants, giving speeches and going to parties there?

In fact, on any weekday it is possible to run into a whole cast of similar characters, once scorned, having jolly lunches at Duke Zeibert's, a sort of political wax museum.

Just how did they survive?

Usually, they were prepared for it, says Leonard Garment, an attorney who shepherded Nixon, Judge Robert Bork and former National Security Adviser Robert (Bud) McFarlane through their Washington traumas. Like mountain climbers, such survivors had gone through a long process of adaptation, adjusting to the air pressure as they ascended the heights.

"Vince Foster was the exception," says Garment. "He hit an altitude his system was unprepared for."

Still, some people's coping powers amaze even Garment.

He recalls the meeting with Nixon when they discovered the infamous 18 1/2-minute gap on Rosemary Woods' tape: "We knew this was bad, but he walked across the street and received some (diplomat's) credentials and he was calm, even cheerful. I couldn't believe it."

People in the spotlight usually have strong--in some cases gargantuan--egos and, after dismissing criticism, show incredible resilience. Yet men like Foster and McFarlane, who himself attempted suicide in the wake of charges of lying to Congress during the Iran-Contra affair, were unable to stand accusations of misconduct or hurting their country, Garment says.

They were honorable people, he says, but fragile--and troubled.

Foster's closest friends acknowledge that he did not die of public scrutiny working for his friend, Bill Clinton. During his seven months in Washington, Foster felt some public heat: over the failed nominations of Zoe Baird as attorney general and Lani Guinier as assistant attorney general, over the crisis in the White House travel staff, and over the efforts to keep the health care task force proceedings private.

But why a person takes his life is too personal, too idiosyncratic and too complicated to just blame Washington's third-degree.

Though each case of those who survive such grillings is dramatically different, the process seems to treat them similarly.

Like a blunt instrument, it doesn't seem to distinguish between someone who thumbs his nose at the Constitution like Nixon and someone like Bork, whose only "crime" was to hold different ideological views from a needed Senate majority.

While outraged during his unsuccessful confirmation hearings for the U.S. Supreme Court, Bork never had the slightest sense he had personally failed anything or anyone, Garment says.

"He's a truly Falstaffian character, and he survived very much by his sense of self. When someone suggested he cut off his beard to look kindlier during the hearings, he nearly through him out a window."

Blaming "Washington" for such episodes--as if it is some faceless android--may miss the point. Insiders squarely finger the media, saying they have become so vast and aggressive in trying to advance the story-of-the-day that any sense of common sense and nuance is lost.

In a Washington Post column this week, Jody Powell, former press secretary to President Carter, eviscerated the "ghoulish pack of sensation-crazed journalists" for acting just as Foster said they had. (In a note found after he died, Foster wrote, "Here, ruining people is considered sport.")

"There's something wrong with unjustly hurting people, even if you don't kill them," Powell says. "It's particularly wrong when it's done with an air of arrogant indifference."

In an interview, Powell recalls the damage done to his friend Hamilton Jordan, Carter's White House chief of staff, after two New York nightclub owners, under investigation by the Justice Department, accused Jordan of using cocaine at their club.

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