The American way of scandal

Robert C. McFarlane

September 19, 1991|By Robert C. McFarlane

TAXPAYERS no doubt hope that after a government scandal has been investigated and "steps" have been taken, the system will somehow work better. In the case of the Iran-contra scandal, that hasn't happened. Indeed, there is a strong basis for believing that none of the so-called corrective organisms of the system have worked, and that the relationship of comity, so essential

to effective functioning of our political system, has been further eroded.

As matters stand, the central issue in this episode -- how the shared responsibilities for the conduct of foreign policy ought to be divided between the presidency and the Congress -- has not been seriously joined, at least not by the presidency; the central decision-maker of the scandal -- former President Reagan -- has not been held to account; and the institution established to deter, or to police, wrongdoing -- the independent counsel -- will likely end up discredited. Instead of things getting better in the catharsis of scandal, they have gotten worse.

Why? Some say that when access to the media means more than anything else to a political figure, and when access to a scandal means more than almost anything else to the media, looking for scandal has become an end in itself.

My point is not that we should put a moratorium on public officials' accountability. We should, however, recognize that there are costs to the nurturing of a climate in which public officials are held to extraordinary standards in proceedings in which good faith is missing on both sides because both sides are protecting selfish interests. Not the least of these costs is that good people begin to stay away from government, and those already within become less creative and more risk-averse, and less inclined to cooperate when something goes wrong.

Some may say that, as one who has committed some pretty gross errors, I am the last one to be making these points. But under the principle that even fools occasionally have useful things to say, let me go on.

Much of what has made American democracy work is trust and mutual respect among political adversaries. However, if that relationship is allowed to dry up, we will all suffer from government without initiative and without courage.

We must somehow restore a sense of balance about which scandals truly warrant huge investment of our energies. When ++ we find one that fills the bill, we must take it seriously, treating it as a failing of our political system that requires a political solution, but remembering that the goal of the investigation is to strengthen the system by rekindling mutual trust and respect. It is fair to say that a rush to criminalize political disagreements cannot but have the opposite effect.

What do I mean by balance? Example: Twenty years ago, White House officials secretly planned the bombing of a sovereign country, killing thousands of innocent civilians. They not only withheld information about it from Congress; they also countenanced the falsification of records to cover up what they had done. These are serious breaches of the rules, yet when they were exposed, no one was charged with crimes. Nothing approaching this scale of deception occurred in the Iran-contra affair, yet a dozen subordinate officials have been charged with crimes, with more to come.

It may be argued that even though the perpetrators of the bombing of Cambodia went unpunished, their very discovery sowed the seeds of mistrust that led to more severe scrutiny of the Iran-contra affair. Probably so. The question is, are we better off for it? Shouldn't we be focusing on restoring respect for the rules of political discourse between the presidency and Congress?

What are these rules of comity? The first one is that you never lie. The second is that you engage in political argument in good faith. The third is that after votes are taken, and one side wins and the other loses, the loser will be bound to uphold the law as it was defined in the good-faith negotiations leading up to the vote. The fourth is that if you follow Nos. 1, 2 and 3, you will be given a chance for your position to be proven right (or wrong).

In the Iran-contra episode, surely the rules of comity to which I refer were broken, most importantly in that lies were told. Principal figures admitted that on national television. And there were other breaches of the rules. Perhaps the next most serious was the refusal by former President Reagan to engage in the kind of contentious but civil discourse, the good-faith give-and-take, that has typified the relationship of comity between Congress and the presidency throughout most of our history. It is both wrong and stupid for the White House to ignore Congress. In my judgment, it was this demonstrated lack of respect by Reagan for members of the Senate and the House, that led the latter to bring down the Goetterdaemmerung.

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