Those who stand tall some times get knocked down

Amitai Etzioni

July 11, 1991|By Amitai Etzioni

AMERICANS are so anxious to protect their populist, republican, anti-monarchy tradition that whenever a leader or public figure so much as approximates a venerable status, we shred his or her public persona. Lately we have knocked down a peg or two the public servant par excellence Clark Clifford and the super-scientist David Baltimore, and we've given Nancy Reagan one more public trashing (adding some swipes at her husband), and the Kennedy clan another working-over. (Our populism is quite bipartisan.)

Clifford, who reached the venerable age of 84 without a whiff of scandal, and who spent two generations advising our top leaders, now finds his character under attack. A bank he represented was controlled in part by another bank accused of laundering drug money. Clifford either did not know abut the bank's nefarious background or, it was suggested, tried to conceal it. Suddenly, former colleagues were telling reporters that, about 20 years ago, Clifford made phone calls that by today's standard might be interpreted as influence-peddling.

And an established Washington gadfly let it be known that Clifford, in his current private law practice, benefits from what he learned in his years of public service -- a truly unprecedented and heinous crime! I myself saw Clifford in 1964 (or was it '62?) almost jaywalking -- and on Pennsylvania Avenue!

For decades, Baltimore was one of our most outstanding scientists. Then he was appointed the head of the distinguished Rockefeller University, which is enough to make anyone an inviting target. We are now told that one of his many collaborators (in natural sciences there are large research teams, and the head person gets to put his or her name on all of the numerous resulting papers) falsified some data. There is no evidence that Baltimore was aware of this, but he also was not as cooperative in the investigation as he might and ought to have been; the inference was that he was stonewalling.

Maybe most telling is the case of CBS' Andy Rooney. His affable face, sensitive humor and mild brand of social criticism made him one of the most popular figures on TV and a best-selling author. About a year ago, he made comments that were interpreted as prejudicial to homosexuals and blacks. Rooney was suspended from CBS and demands were made that he be summarily fired. This despite the fact that in his 40 years' work -- 40 years! -- no one could find other improper statements, only mountains of civil expressions on the side of numerous angels and virtues.

Maybe because I live in Washington and spent a year in the White House, I am convinced that every public figure has had at least an occasional attack of foot-in-the-mouth disease, moments of indiscretion, some errant phone calls. I am confident that if we dig long and hard enough, there is nobody in public life who will survive.

And let the scientist who never neglected to supervise his staff, never used funds appropriated for research project A for work on project B, or who always reimbursed the university for personal phone calls, cast the first stone.

We must come to realize that while many of our public figures may be exemplary, saints they are not. They all have at least some human frailties, and we must give them some license, or we shall continuously be disappointed in them, and soon there will be no one to serve us.

This is not to suggest that we should set aside ethical standards PTC and expectations when it comes to public leaders. Only that we should, first of all, distinguish between cardinal offenses (say, rape, leaving the scene of a crime, taking bribes) from others (say, minor favoritism for relatives). Second, we should make allowances for occasional slips, especially of the tongue, as distinct from patterns of repeated wrongdoing, which we should take much less lightly. And the punishment should fit the "crime." We should not banish to the hinterlands for life someone who spent a night in the wrong bedroom, although we may well express our guarded displeasure.

Above all, if we stop setting our public figures on such high pedestals, there will be less need to tear them down. Our leaders are rather like the rest of us; there is not a prince among them.

Amitai Etzioni is a professor at George Washington University. His most recent book is "The Moral Dimension."

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