The Nation's Capital Was Ever Thus

NATHAN MILLER

August 16, 1993|By NATHAN MILLER

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- It seems to be the fashion in politics nowadays to assail our public men, to belittle their character, and to impugn their motives. If you believe all you read and hear, you might well reach the conclusion that there is not a man today in public life whose motives are free from suspicion . . . The fashion of assaulting public men is amounting almost to hysteria. . . .''

Is this the latest outcry about the take-no-prisoners attitude toward officialdom that prevails within the Washington Beltway after the suicide of Vincent W. Foster, Jr., deputy counsel in the Clinton White House?

Hardly.

These words were uttered back in 1906 by Nicholas Longworth, then Speaker of the House of Representatives. Longworth's assessment of the charged political atmosphere of that day may or may not have been correct but it is certainly valid for our time -- and for almost any period of American history.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln -- Lincoln in particular -- Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry S Truman, among a host of others, were all subjects of vile calumnies far worse than anything heard today. All managed to bear up under the onslaught of abuse and in many cases to give as good as they got.

National politics in this country has always been a zone of contention, where the stakes are high in terms of money, of power, and of prestige. As a result, what passes for political discourse all too often resembles a free-fire zone where words, suspicion and innuendo take the place of assault rifle and mortar. Restraint and rationalism disappear as politics becomes an extension of war.

The staggering complexity of the process required to enact legislation that will pass muster with each of the racial, ethnic, economic and cultural entities that now constitute America plays a major role in elevating verbal violence to new plateaus. Charges, counter-charges and name-calling now substitute for policy.

Conservatives also claim that the slash-and-burn tactics used by liberals in opposing the nomination of two Republicans to the Supreme Court, Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, make Democratic officials fair game for attack.

Some people who come to Washington -- and Mr. Foster seems to have been among them -- are psychologically unprepared for the intensity of this struggle. Washington is a company town in which the only industry is government. For thousands of law-makers, upper-echelon bureaucrats, lobbyists and especially journalists, the most popular sport is the making and shredding of reputations. Who's up, who's down, who's in and who's out are mother's milk to them.

There are those, such as the Texas wheeler-dealer Robert Strauss, who thrive in this overwrought atmosphere. Masters of the sly grin, the knowing lift of the eyebrow, the reassuring pat on the arm, they use the insatiable appetite of the media for inside stories to build their own reputations. They barter an inexhaustible fund of tips, insights and gossip for public praise of their sagacity. Mr. Strauss, for example, a nominal Democrat, has had a prominent role in every administration since that of Jimmy Carter.

Many newcomers, on the other hand, having developed exaggerated expectations as to what they would be able to accomplish in Washington, are puzzled by, and then disdainful of the capital. Most quickly burn out and seek other forms of reward in the city's prosperous law firms and lobbying associations. Having come to Washington to do good, they stay on to do well.

No one is expected to make a moral statement or upset the process by shooting himself to death as did Mr. Foster. Only rarely has this unwritten rule against self-destruction been violated.

In 1949, James V. Forrestal, worn out after years of service as the nation's first Secretary of Defense, hurled himself out of a 16th-floor window at the Bethesda Naval Hospital, where he was undergoing psychiatric treatment. In his case, psychological fragility was undermined by a savage campaign of vilification by various newspaper and radio commentators.

And in 1965, Frank G. Wisner, architect of many of the Central Intelligence Agency's nastier cold war operations, killed himself on his Maryland farm with a blast from a 20-gauge shotgun after his efforts to stir uprisings against the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe ended with the bloody suppression of the Hungarian revolution.

The comments on Mr. Forrestal's unhappy end resembled the current breast-beating among Washington insiders. ". . . This public official, probably more than any other man of our time, was subjected to a campaign of abuse and vilification the like of which I have never heard,'' intoned Rep. Hale Boggs, D-La., "It would seem to me that this should give pause to the irresponsible elements both in the press and on the radio who abuse the privileges of liberty and honor . . ."

And Mr. Wisner's friends issued a statement extolling him for having "devoted himself totally to one of the most onerous and difficult tasks that any American public servant has ever had to undertake . . ."

Personally, I find the words of President Truman the best antidote for political insults. Few chief executives took more abuse or had more dead cats heaved at them, but the Man from Missouri had a solution: ''If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.''

Former Sun Washington correspondent Nathan Miller's latest book is "Theodore Roosevelt: A Life."

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