If you want to see how politics can go wrong, take a look at the hearings that begin today on the relationship of five senators with Charles Keating, the savings and loan high-flier. Mr. Keating's ability to enlist such horsepower as these senators to protect him from S&L regulators cost taxpayers $2 billion. Similar influence-wielding by other financiers may eventually cost us hundreds of billions.
The hearings are being conducted by the Senate Select Committee on Ethics. If you have cable television, you can catch them live on C-Span, which begins gavel-to-gavel coverage at 9:30 a.m., or on CNN, which has promised "extensive" coverage, or on the commercial networks and PBS, which will no doubt provide relatively full coverage of the opening day of the proceedings.
The opening scene will tell you worlds about this scandal. The senators have asked that they be seated at separate witness tables. Each has his own lawyer. Three of these lawyers are experienced in criminal law, the fourth in savings and loans cases, and the fifth in senatorial corruption.
You get the picture. The senators do not want to be seen on television with one another, and they are bringing high-powered legal talent to advise and protect them should the going get rough.
All five senators -- Alan Cranston, Dennis DeConcini, Donald Riegle, John Glenn and John McCain -- have denied wrong-doing. Yet members of the Ethics Committee have indicated there may be questions about the credibility of these denials. It may or may not be true, as Senator Cranston said, "I pocketed no money. I broke no law. I violated no Senate rule." If that is false, the committee must demonstrate this to the nation and recommend severe punishment.
If it is true, but as some Keating Five claim, "everybody does it," that's no defense. However, it is evidence that more than just these senators need to be investigated. If the hearings reveal that what the Keating Five did is standard operating procedure, the Senate may have to consider forming a special panel along the lines of the Iran-contra committee of the 1980s or the Watergate committee of the 1970s.
But first things first. The immediate business is the Keating Five. For once, Congress is placing its own members under harsh public examination. The reputations of these senators are at stake -- but so is the reputation of the U.S. Senate.