In the corridors of power, disgrace means never having to say you're sorry D.C.'s Undead CAMPAIGN 1994

August 22, 1994|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Sun Staff Writer

The names are familiar. Marion Barry. Oliver North. Bob Packwood. G. Gordon Liddy. Spiro T. Agnew.

Washington names.

Names that conjure up politics and some sort of fall from political grace.

Names that conjure up memories of such things as: drugs, lying, sexual harassment and burglary.

For a while, after they lied or cheated or misrepresented or whatever, some of these folks went away. A couple, of course, went to prison. Others just tried disappearing by keeping a low political profile and praying that the media's moving finger would move on.

Now they're back. All of them. Back from their near-death experience -- politically speaking -- and poised to infiltrate the halls of power once more.

Ex-D.C. mayor Marion Barry, after serving time for cocaine possession, is making a bid to return to his old job.

Ex-Marine officer Oliver North -- who, a Virginia judge recently ruled, can no longer carry a gun because he is "not of good character" -- is the Republican Senate nominee in Virginia.

Ex-burglar G. Gordon Liddy -- who's made a fortune on the lecture circuit -- has become a superstar as a syndicated radio talk show host.

Current Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood -- recently introduced by ABC's David Brinkley as "an authority on the subject of scandals" -- has emerged from the midst of sexual harassment charges to assume a leadership role on the Republican health care bill.

They are some of a growing number of Washington's Comeback Kids. Nothing, it seems, can stop them. Not a sense of shame. Not public opinion. Perhaps not even a stake through the heart.

Call them: The Undead.

"Everybody's coming back from the dead," says syndicated columnist John Leo of U.S. News & World Report. "Look at Tony Coelho. He left Congress under an enormous cloud. Now he's coming back to advise the Democratic National Committee."

Mr. Coelho, in case you've forgotten, is the former California representative whose downfall in 1989 came amid reports that he had profited financially from his political connections. "I always thought Coelho was a real crook," Mr. Leo says. "Still, I guess it's better than Bert Lance coming back."

Bert Lance, in case you've forgotten, was the Carter administration budget director who resigned in the wake of a controversy concerning his personal financial dealings.

"Look at Nixon," continues Mr. Leo. "Nixon kept bouncing back. Had five presidents at his funeral. If Nixon can do it, [Nazi Gestapo leader Heinrich] Himmler should be able to do it."

In other words, when F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives, he didn't mean politicians.

"There are getting to be more and more of these second acts in politics and people are just too weary to care," says Suzanne Garment, author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in Politics" and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "My sense of it is that the surfeit of scandals since Watergate and the surfeit of moralism in politics have simply burned us out . . .

"We've simply lost our will to keep on administering Draconian punishments. It used to be that when you were indicted, it was a big deal. Now when you get indicted it doesn't even get you uninvited to Washington dinner parties."

In fact, sometimes it makes you even more popular. At least after a while.

"You must never count anyone out in Washington, because everyone can be reborn here," says Diana McLellan, Washingtonian writer and former "Ear" gossip columnist. "The cast of characters is so limited here that disgrace lasts only a certain amount of time. In Washington there is a statute of limitations on disgrace.

"Take Mike Deaver," she says, referring to the former Reagan adviser and lobbyist convicted on three counts of perjury. "When he was in disgrace, Washington people quite literally avoided him as though he had cooties. But the cooties leave after a while. He's very popular now. The savvy old-timers, the ones who know you're never really dead in Washington, will come up to you after a while and offer their hand."

Besides, after a while no one can really remember exactly what it was that landed a politician in hot water.

"They grow accustomed to your undead face," says Ms. McLellan. "People see you and they forget exactly what it is you did wrong. It could be anything -- from misapplying your expense account to raping your secretary. They know there was something but they can't remember what."

Republican strategist and TV talk show host Mary Matalin agrees with Ms. McLellan. "Her theory is right," says Ms. Matalin, who was deputy manager of the Bush re-election campaign in 1992. "There is a statute of limitations. It's the nature of politics. The memory of it is so fleeting."

Not only that, says Ms. Matalin, but people in the inner circle of politics are willing to cut some slack for those who are skilled at what they do. Particularly if you are a skilled political strategist. Like Ms. Matalin. And like her husband, James Carville, who was Clinton's campaign strategist in 1992.

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