Ethic Cleansing

Politics: Our sanctimonious pursuit of conflict-free purity undermines public life.

The Clinton honeymoon is hardly underway and the Society of Permanent Busybodies is already questioning the integrity of his Transition Committee. They want to know: How can Vernon Jordan, former head of the Urban League and co-chair of the transition, presume to give advice on presidential appointments when he serves on the board of a tobacco company?
About the time this flap stops flapping we are sure to hear about some transition official who owns stock in a company building hotels in repressive China or making environmentally unsound disposable diapers.

Once again, the process of government, rather than its aims and consequences, absorbs the media mind. We should have stuck with the realism of the American founders. Instead, we seem poised to reconfirm the pattern of sanctimonious backbiting that has progressively distracted public life for the past generation.

Republicans should not gloat at the prospect. The whole of politics is trivialized and demoralized by legalistic muckraking, and the Republicans will find themselves on the receiving end again someday. Nor, meanwhile, should victorious Democrats imagine that a stout heart, a clear conscience, or some tougher ethics guidelines for appointees will spare the new administration from the kinds of “ethics” imbroglios that agitated and maddened the Reagan and Bush administrations.

Let us not forget Jimmy Carter, who also wanted a country whose government was “as good as its people.” He suffered some genuine embarrassments -such as brother Billy’s lobbying for Libyans – but suffered even more from such bogus scandals as chief of staff Hamilton Jordan’s supposed drug use. Shortly thereafter, in 1978, a righteous Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act – and thoughtfully exempted itself. Congress also made the administration elected in 1980 – Reagan’s, it turned out – the first to operate under the “tough” new act.

The Reagan crowd foolishly trusted in their own sense of virture to shield them and soon were tangled in the webs of such sticky concepts as an “apparent conflict of interest.” It transpired, to their astonishment and grief, that the “appearance” of such a conflict is in the control of an accuser. An official may think he has no conflict of interest and may correctly assume that no reasonable person would see it otherwise. But ideological opponents, media investigators, and rogue prosecutors (such as Lawrence E. Walsh) can be ruthlessly obtuse about reason.

Moreover, in politics the charge is usually more damaging than the end result. Colorado Representative Pat Schroeder’s politically potent “Sleaze List” was really nothing but a compilation of news clippings on everyone in the Reagan administration whom anyone else had criticized about anything. The media reported on it as if it were a Supreme Court ruling. Exoneration by an inspector general or congressional committee or even a court did not mean that a name was taken off the official-sounding list.

Watching this as vice president, George Bush seemingly learned very little about the Kafkaesque nature of our ethics laws, the malice of political opportunists, or the wanton unfairness of the media. For upon his own election as a president in 1988, Bush made the mistake of publicly directing his new appointees to meet ethics standards even “tougher” than those of the 1978 law. Before long, he was hoisted on his own petard, starting with the John Tower confirmation debacle.

Why is the need for moderation in the pursuit of an ethical ideal so hard to establish as a public goal? Real life, especially in politics, is full of necessary ambiguity, where the nuance one accepts as truth is usually influenced by one’s point of view. Punishing people with costly investigations and legal action for ethical “appearances,” which, ultimately, they cannot control – rather than for actions, which they can – is a dauntng, almost tyrannous, obstacle to representative democracy. In public life, to be officially charged with unethical behavior is to invite automatic political punishment at the polls, even if you later win in court.

The Democrats apparently do not realize this yet, perhaps because they have not occupied the White House since the 1978 act took effect. Thus, President-elect Clinton, in his turn, is already announcing plans for a new, still “tougher” standard of eithics for his own officials, as if “tough” were synonymous with “appropriate.” Politically, it will win him brief praise, but he may soon come to rue these rash rites of purification.

Even if the ethics laws don’t catch the new administration, the media Scandal Machine will. Democrats are most often the beneficiaries of liberal bias in the media, so they may be more easily lulled into discounting the media’s even more serious bias – the inclination to scandal.

The battle over the nomination of Admiral Lewis Strauss for Secretary of Commerce in 1958 – and Strauss’ eventual defeat, thanks to an alliance of newspaper muckster Drew Pearson and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson – probably pioneered the misuse of the confirmation process to serve unacknowledged political purposes. Strauss, an honorable if arrogant man who had been confirmed several times for other posts, was denied confirmation for the Commerce post on the basis of an assemblage of ethics innuendoes and backroom deals for votes on other matters. As Pearson’s associate, Jack Anderson, has written (in Confessions of a Muckraker), Pearson’s real aim was to soften up the Eisenhower-Nixon administration before the 1960 election. Johnson’s aim in conspiring with Pearson was to get Pearson, the most dangerous jounalist in the country at the time, off his own back.

But scandal as the coin of career advancement in journalism is of more recent minting. Even Watergate writer Carl Bernstein has complained about the flimsy evidence required these days to launch a personal attack on someone. In too many cases, the reservations of good journalists merely mean that unscrupulous competitors get the story first. For them, the standard for initial attack is possesion of a few circumstantial indications of wrongdoing, commonly offered up by a hidden but interested source.

Under the new rules, an officeholder or nominee is presumed guilty until proven innocent. Even once proven, his innocnce is ignored. Consider the hoax called the “October Surprise,” which alleged that the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign conspired with the Iranians to delay the release of American hostages in order to help Reagan’s election chances. When the Democratic Congress finally issued a report that showed, after an investigative exmination, that there was no evidence to support the charges, the news barely made a ripple in the media.

The news rules also make light of well-considered official statements, finding them automatically suspect, while suggesting that the real truth is found in the chance remark, the careless quip, and the slip of the tongue. Corrections are treated as admissions. “Apologies” are extorted, and, when given, used as further evidence of wrongdoing. Wrongsaying, indeed, had become the equivalent of wrongdoing.

Part of the cure for this scandal bias is to increase the number and variety of media outlets – and opinions. The coming advent of the “telecomputer,” combining the computer and the television in an interactive medium that can offer literally thousands of channels of “bottom up” communication – controlled by the viewer – rather than the limited “dumb terminal” choices of today, may be as liberating to politics as to the culture. Meanwhile, it is also helpful that some in the media are beginning to use the same investigative weapons deployed against the politicians against the Grand Inquisitors of the media themselves. After all, who is a bigger power figure in the country, Mike Wallace or one of his unwilling guests?

The politicians, for their part, probably can do nothing about the media bias toward scandal. When old-fashioned graft and corruption occur they should be reported, investigated, and prosecuted. Policy blunders and political deals are also fit subjects for media and partisan criticism – but not for legal harassment. President-elect Clinton, in turn, can avoid making matters worse for himself and his appointees. “Tougher” ethics regulations will surely turn out to set traps for his own best people, especially the innocent newcomers.

Indeed, one of the most fitting Christmas gifts Clinton could give his gathering administration would be a bold defense of the political art. Early on, he should explain that conflicts are unavoidable in public life and that in sorting them out virtue is seldom found unalloyed and vice is not always where it appears.

The “truth” is that we will have better credibility in fighting real instances of corruption if we leave a wide latitude in public life for the everyday rowdy clash and comprise of interests, ambitions, and drives. That, not the false detour to a petty and formalistic purity, is the path to effective government.

Effectiveness: Now wouldn’t that be a real “change” in Washington?

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.