Nation besotted with scandal misses the biggest scandals of all

Ann Egerton

November 18, 1991|By Ann Egerton

SCANDAL: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics. By Suzanne Garment. Times Books. 304 pages. $23.

5/8 HOW HANDY that after 45 years of worrying about the Soviet menace, we can now relax! Now, instead of looking for communists under the bed, we can sniff out scandals.

According to Suzanne Garment, a former columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, scandals are as American as apple pie and come in all varieties -- political, financial and sexual being the most prevalent -- sometimes with the delicious mix of two or all three.

While they are as old as America (Alexander Hamilton's extramarital affair in 1791 while he was secretary of the Treasury, the Teapot Dome affair in 1922), scandals have proliferated in the last 15 years. So have the number of reporters and investigators of all kinds determined to sniff them out. So, too, has the number of people aiding in the sniffing.

In her book, "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics," Garment claims that scandal in the last years of the 20th century has become a cannibalistic and metastatic industry, resulting in a growing public cynicism about the villains, the inquisitors and the informers -- but not so much cynicism that people don't enjoy a good scandal.

Garment presents a thorough and numbing account of approximately 400 officials who have been involved in scandals since Watergate. It's not that government is more corrupt than ever, she says, but that the public and press are hungrier than ever for tales of corruption.

Today, even a so-so scandal gets thorough and prominent coverage. Garment wrote this book before the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas showdown and before the juicy revelations about banking and dining practices in the House of Representatives. She adds, however, that the mammoth scandals that are costing Americans billions of dollars or eating at the heart of the nation -- the savings and loan debacle and the growth of the urban underclass, for example -- are too amorphous for the media to attack systematically over a long period. Our attention span is simply too short. Give us an imbroglio over flag burning or offensive art any time!

Garment says the current anti-corruption mood stems not just from the media's post-Watergate euphoria, but from the efforts of anti-war and consumer organizations such as Ralph Nader's various units and Common Cause. There are over 1,000 "public-interest" advocacy organizations today, she says.

She describes the formation of the special prosecutor's office (now called the independent counsel) during the Nixon years, the operation of the House Ethics Committee, the early FBI undercover operations (Abscam, for example), the expansion of federal investigative forces and the enormous growth of congressional investigative committees (and commensurately multiplying staffs). All of these comprise what Garment calls the "scandal production system" and, inevitably, scandal politics, in which there are now so many checks against undesirable behavior that government has become almost paralyzed. Some congressional committees now have the resources and the will to conduct perpetual scandal hunts that could ruin careers and humiliate families for years to come. Garment notes that the media no longer allow public figures to have private lives.

This carefully researched and written book shows how the components of scandal have changed over the years and what that tells us about ourselves. A sad and dangerous consequence is the growing reluctance of talented people to serve in government. "Combat is easier," said one distinguished person turning down an invitation to public service.

Ann Egerton writes from Baltimore.

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