THEY ARE ARGUING ABOUT WHETHER THERE IS intelligent life in space. What about whether there is moral life in Washington? That strikes me as being at least as urgent a question, but also, unfortunately, one that doesn't seem likely to be affirmatively answered any sooner than we will get the definitive word from Krypton. Of course there are (and always have been) some moral paragons and a handful of heroes walking around in the capital. But when you look at the way the big shots and most people in the parties here are addressing the ethical issues that keep floating to the surface of the political muck, one thing becomes fairly clear. It is that, never mind all the high-flown moral preachery that comes out of this city regarding the elementary duties of others, there is nothing that causes those preachers more abjectly to flee their own duty than a question of right and wrong that requires a yes or no.
As one who thinks that Newt Gingrich's lapses are more serious than his supporters allow and still much less serious than the whole array of charges the Clinton White House is trying to vaporize, I don't put the two situations on equal footing. What seems alike about them is the ways in which the larger political collectivity here is trying to handle and/or evade their implications. When you are trying to understand the players in these dramas, to figure out which are doing right and why so many seem muddled or compromised or mousy or downright mendacious in approaching the charges against their leaders, there are three considerations you should take into account.
1) WHO IS CLEAN? A large part of the difficulty in getting any clarity or clear-cut position on certain kinds of misconduct in the capital is that so many of the onlookers and would-be judges are themselves guilty of the same type of misconduct in some degree. Even when the people under a cloud are being accused of having done something considerably more unethical, there is often the nervous consideration that those who take out against them may be clobbered with a boomerang form of the same charge. There may also be the thought that not only is everyone across party lines pretty much in it together, but the kind of fudging and fooling involved is required for a viable political existence in Washington. The whole realm of campaign finance and questions of what kind of perks of office can be used for what kinds of personal activity are good examples of areas where this ambivalence tends to rule.
In fact, it appears to be so well, if only tacitly, understood across party lines that on some of these questions no one will be punished and all will be silent, that the bolder among the accused have even felt free to come on as supermoralists themselves when they were in no position to. Gingrich, who has had no end to say on the corruption of Democrats, is one. Clinton, who piously vowed to end precisely the kind of behavior of which he and his party now stand accused, is another. Even so, although there is a certain amount of jeering over this, great numbers of people in both parties are hoping to avoid having to take a stand and wish the whole business would go away. Resentment against the accused is often not for having behaved unethically, but for having been excessive in their behavior and ruined a good thing.
2) WHO IS HONEST? Remember, I am talking about the onlookers and would- be judges here, not the participants in whatever the scandal was. Honesty means honesty in looking at the charges and trying to figure out exactly what was done and, if it was wrong, where it stands--on its own--as a misdeed. I add that honesty includes being willing to discover that the alleged misdeed was not a misdeed at all and to say so even when the political advantage goes with joining the condemnation.
The point is that there is always a great scarcity of such persons around when things get hot in Washington. Palship and partisanship and self-interest tend to prevail. Thus, from those who manifestly know better come the great tortured arguments, the nitpickings, the so's-your-old-mans, and the cries (perfected in our times) that since no actual prosecutable crime has been proven, no wrongdoing could have been done. These days in Washington you can hear Clinton loyalists arguing that all the illegal money hefting and laundering of which the Democrats are accused is very similar to and thus no worse than the Nixon campaign's schlepping around of suitcases full of hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is a defense?
3) WHO IS INDEPENDENT? I was going to say "brave," but "independent" will do. It avoids that ludicrous self-dramatization whereby politicians claim bravery for themselves and award it to others for simply doing the right thing and taking a little heat for it--as if that were synonymous with rushing into a burning building and saving a child. Leaders should be expected to try to do the right thing and to be independent about it. Independence is not disloyalty to one's party or friends or even benefactors; rightly understood and exercised in this context, it is insistence on loyalty to the principles that supposedly have joined one with them in the first place.
In most all of the scandals that have lighted up the Washington sky in recent years there have been such people, a few hardy, independent souls who, when independence was clearly morally required, refused to be bound and gagged in deference to the party line or, conversely, programmed and sent forth to parrot it to their own suppressed discomfort and shame. I'm not talking of showboats here, but of people for whom honesty was finally not an option to be considered, but an obligation to be fulfilled. They may not do well with their buddies in the present, but they do well by their reputations for the future--and their peace of mind.
We will shortly see how many such there are on the scene--independent, honest, unimplicated and willing to take on the scandals straight. I hold out hope for some, though not exactly a thundering herd. Political Washington may have adopted all sorts of rhetoric about the need for restoring traditional, right-and-wrong standards in American life. But this city remains an invincible bastion of situational ethics.