Why Scandals Fail to Scandalize Us

August 17, 1994|By SUZANNE GARMENT

WASHINGTON — Washington.--With the Whitewater hearings over for now, the betting is on how long it will be before Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger C. Altman -- said to be among the walking dead since revelations of his contacts with the White House during the Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan investigation -- is banished from office.

After all, isn't that how modern scandals work? Reputations ruined, careers blighted, lives scarred?

Don't be so sure. There is a limit to outrage among the political elite. The moralism of the past years may have left people too tired to keep meting out Draconian punishments for ethical lapses.

The person most embarrassed and embarrassing at the hearings was Mr. Altman.

The Senate had previously asked him about conversations he might have had with White House staff during the Madison investigation; he had owned up to just one ''substantive'' contact. After he testified, other contracts kept turning up, and at the just-ended hearing, Mr. Altman did a poor job of explaining.

Still, Mr. Altman had many fellow squirmers. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen portrayed himself, implausibly, as ignorant of Madison goings-on. Treasury aide Joshua L. Steiner, who had kept a diary that vividly described White House pressure, tried to impeach his own writings.

Presidential staffer Harold M. Ickes, in a deposition before the hearings, contradicted Mr. Altman on what information the Treasury deputy had divulged to the White House. When he testified, Mr. Ickes stood by his account but tried to discredit it, saying he was deaf in one ear and might have heard wrong.

The whole performance was discouraging. Twenty years of turning ourselves inside out on the subject of ethics in government, and this is where we are. Moreover, it's not clear that the glare of lights and the bombast of senators will endanger the liberty and fortunes of the alleged perpetrators.

Take Mr. Bentsen: If key members of Congress were to say they had lost confidence in him, he would be finished. But after his RTC long career on the Hill, they will allow him to refurbish his reputation.

Mr. Bentsen may begin this refurbishment by getting rid of his Whitewater-tainted crew. For instance, Treasury general counsel Jean Hanson is said to be ready to return to her old law firm, which says it would be happy to have her back. That's not professional ruination.

Should Mr. Altman leave the administration, his investment-banking colleagues would welcome him home.

White House Counsel Lloyd N. Cutler suffered damage at the hearings, especially for failing to see that some in Congress might reasonably view him as a partisan of the president's rather than an impartial counselor-investigator.

But Mr. Cutler is due to leave soon, and his reputation in Washington is strong enough to see him through the unpleasantness.

Mr. Steiner, at the beginning of his career, has no power-base cushion. But he stands accused merely of (a) youthful imprudence for keeping a diary and (b) loyalty strong enough to make a fool of himself. Mr. Steiner will find takers for his talents.

Finally, Mr. Ickes has his own protection. He is an ally of a first lady who is a fierce loyalist, who had to fire one close associate in former White House Counsel Bernard W. Nussbaum and who will resist repeating the process.

So what has happened to the modern scandal mania we hear about, said to be so merciless in smashing public reputations? We are adjusting, that's what. We are fine-tuning our standards.

If you need further demonstration, consider this: The men leading the Senate Whitewater hearings were Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.) and Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, (R-N.Y.).

Mr. Riegle was a star defendant in the Keating Five scandal. Mr. D'Amato was recently in serious trouble over favor-peddling. At the Whitewater hearings, their authority was not challenged.

Another senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, (D-N.Y.), has written that when a society is plagued by more disorder than it can tolerate, it redefines its terms. Things once thought disorderly will now be considered normal.

So it is with the question of what we will regard as morally ruinous: The surfeit of scandal seems to be turning us into morally hardened cases.

This weariness means the administration's critics will have to produce more than they have if they intend to destroy Clintonite reputations in the old-fashioned, thoroughgoing sense of the word.

Suzanne Garment, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in Politics," wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.

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