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The Nation : Weary of Public Scandals, Are Americans Growing More Tolerant of Ethical Lapses?

August 14, 1994|Suzanne Garment | Suzanne Garment, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics" (Times Books)

FIRE ISLAND, N.Y. — With the Whitewater hearings over (for now), the betting in Washington is on how long it will be before Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger C. Altman--widely said to be among the walking political dead since revelations of his contacts with the White House during the investigation of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan--is banished from office in disgrace. After all, isn't that how modern scandals work? Reputations ruined, careers blighted, lives scarred?

Don't be so sure. There is a limit to outrage among the political elite, and the moralism of the past years may have left people too tired to keep meting out Draconian punishments for ethical lapses.

Not that the Clintonites involved in Whitewater don't deserve a little ruining.

The Clinton officials who testified had had every opportunity to learn from Watergate and Iran-Contra history, and they seemed motivated by nothing more than politics-as-usual. Yet, these people were at least as weaselly and evasive as their recent predecessors.

The person most embarrassed, and embarrassing, at the hearings was, of course, Altman himself. The Senate had previously asked him about conversations he might have had with White House staff during the Madison investigation; he had owned up to just one "substantive" contact. After he testified, though, other contracts kept turning up, and at the just-ended hearing, Altman did a poor job of explaining why representatives shouldn't think he had deceived them.

Still, Altman had many fellow squirmers among the witnesses. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen portrayed himself, implausibly, as ignorant of Madison goings-on. Treasury aide Joshua L. Steiner had kept a diary that vividly described White House pressure in the Madison case; in the hearings, he tried, unconvincingly, to impeach his own writings.

Presidential staffer Harold M. Ickes, in a deposition he gave before the hearings, contradicted Altman on what information the Treasury deputy had divulged to the White House. When Ickes testified, he stood by his account--but also tried to discredit it, saying he was deaf in one ear and might have heard wrong.

The whole performance was discouraging. Twenty years of turning ourselves inside out on the subject of ethics in government, and this is where we've gotten ourselves.

Moreover, it's not clear that the glare of klieg lights and the bombast of senators will serve their traditional post-Watergate function of endangering the liberty and fortunes of the alleged perpetrators. Take Bentsen: If key members of Congress were to say they had lost confidence in him, he would be finished. But after his long career on the Hill, they clearly will not punish him in this way; they will allow him to refurbish his reputation.

Bentsen may well begin this refurbishment by getting rid of his Whitewater-tainted crew. For instance, Treasury Department general counsel Jean Hanson is said to be ready to depart government and return to her old law firm, which says it would be happy to have her back. That's not exactly what you would call professional ruination.

In the same way, should Altman leave the Administration, his investment-banking colleagues would welcome him home. True, the business world has gone through an ethics inflation, with increasingly harsh public and private penalties imposed for even non-intentional violations of the rules. Still, the verbal footwork Altman performed before Congress is highly valued in deal makers, who habitually say different things to different people in order to get the job done.

White House Counsel Lloyd N. Cutler suffered damage at the hearings, especially for failing to see that some in Congress might reasonably view him as a partisan of the President's rather than an impartial counselor-investigator. But Cutler is due to leave his job soon, anyway, and his reputation in Washington is strong enough to see him through the current unpleasantness.

By contrast, Steiner, at the beginning of his career, has no base of power to cushion him. On the other hand, he stands accused of merely a) youthful imprudence, for keeping a diary, and b) loyalty strong enough to impel him to make a fool of himself. For many potential employers, the second quality outweighs the first; Steiner will find takers for his talents.

Finally, Ickes has his own type of protection. He is an ally of a First Lady who is a fierce loyalist, who had to fire one close associate in former White House Counsel Bernard W. Nussbaum, and who will resist repeating the process.

So what has happened to the modern scandal mania we hear about, the one said to be so merciless in smashing public reputations? We are adjusting, that's what has happened; we're fine-tuning our standards.

If you need further demonstration, consider this: The men leading the Senate Whitewater hearings were Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.) and Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.). D'Amato was recently in serious trouble over favor-peddling in his office, while Riegle was a star defendant in the Keating Five scandal. But at the Whitewater hearings, their authority was not challenged; they were not laughed out of court.

Another senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), has written that when a society is plagued by more disorder than it can tolerate, it redefines its terms, so that things once thought disorderly will now be considered normal.

So it is with the question of what we will regard as morally ruinous: The surfeit of scandal seems to be turning us into morally hardened cases. This weariness means the Administration's critics will have to produce more than they have if they intend to destroy Clintonite reputations in the old-fashioned, thoroughgoing sense of the word.*

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