Arnick: Bad Day or Pattern of Abusive Episodes?

February 14, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Are we holding our public officers to too high a standard of conduct?

Are we creating such a purist environment that even the most ascetic individual cannot meet these lofty standards?

Because of the Clinton administration's panic over the "Zoe Baird problem," innocent victims such as Judge Kimba Wood and a host of lesser-known nominees have had their appointments quashed.

The slightest hint of having once done something wrong -- no matter how minor or trivial -- or of giving the perception that something in your past might not be viewed as politically correct today -- is now a major faux pas requiring banishment from the Clinton kingdom.

Here in Maryland, we're confronting a related dilemma -- the "Clarence Thomas problem."

Can an elected official, having hoisted a few too many at the bar a few minutes earlier, make an ass out of himself in a private dinner conversation -- complete with profanities and sexual vulgarities -- without endangering his future hopes for a judgeship?

By itself, the original accusation against former Del. John S. Arnick -- a nominee for District Court judge -- might not have been enough to stop his confirmation in the clubby State House atmosphere, where the old b'hoys network still reigns.

But a pattern of abusive episodes? State senators couldn't gloss over these allegations any more than U.S. senators could blithely ignore the persistent harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas.

It was no secret in State House hallways that during Mr. Arnick's long career in the legislature he was a regular at local taverns, often in the company of women. It also was no secret that Mr. Arnick had an explosive temper and frequently used salty

language.

Over the year, he made his share of enemies. As House majority leader during the 1970s, Mr. Arnick's arrogance in ramming through administration programs and his harsh treatment of some colleagues made him feared and powerful.

In recent years, as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Mr. Arnick's gruff treatment of women who testified before his committee and his pivotal role in the fate of women's rights bills also made him a feared power.

But at times he could be engaging and courteous, and he proved helpful in gaining passage for the spousal abuse bill that led to the abusive dinner conversation outlined at a Senate hearing last week.

Mr. Arnick was bright and quick on his feet. He was a high-energy delegate with a limited attention span. He knew how to craft legislation and what it took to get it passed. Those are rare skills these days.

It helped make him an important figure in the State House. It hasn't helped him this time, though.

The reason Mr. Arnick was chosen for the District Court slot in Baltimore County by Gov. William Donald Schaefer had nothing to do with competence. The governor was doing a favor for House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell.

Mr. Arnick had become a prickly problem for Mr. Mitchell. His performance as committee chairman brought complaining legislators into the speaker's office on a regular basis. Switching Mr. Arnick from the environmental committee post to judiciary was designed to put him in line for a judgeship -- and get him out of Mr. Mitchell's chamber.

That maneuver didn't work. On a number of occasions, the Dundalk legislator applied for judicial vacancies. He never made the list submitted by the nominating commission because the panel felt he wasn't judgeship material.

Then last spring, Mr. Arnick opposed the Mitchell plan to balance the budget through big tax increases. He deserted his own leadership, a betrayal that led to his removal as chairman. Rather than having a disgruntled and potentially dangerous legislator in his midst, Mr. Mitchell pressed the governor to find a judgeship.

Somehow, the governor's office got Mr. Arnick's name on the list for a District Court vacancy. It looked like the problem was solved -- until Mr. Arnick's past came back to haunt him this week.

We often forget that public officials, like all of us, make mistakes. Sometimes their judgment is flawed. Sometimes they commit indiscretions. If it is an occasional lapse, we ought to be willing to forgive. But if an official's behavior over the years is suspect, he ought not be considered for higher office. Let's not take political correctness to an extreme. But let's not ignore a pattern of unacceptable behavior, either.

Clarification: Last week, I noted that former Sen. Bill Brock, now contemplating a race for governor, had once been Secretary of Commerce. That's incorrect. He was Secretary of Labor under Ronald Reagan between 1985 and 1987, which might stand him in good stead with some local union officials if he makes a run for statewide office.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director for The Sun.

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