All scandal, all the time

January 22, 1998

The Chicago Tribune said in an editorial Sunday:

LAST WEEK, THESE events made news:

Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr visited the White House to gather sworn testimony from first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. It was the fifth time Mrs. Clinton has testified in the investigation.

President Clinton gave a deposition in the civil suit brought by Paula Jones, who has accused him of exposing himself and making ''odious, perverse and outrageous'' sexual advances to her in 1991.

Labor Secretary Alexis Herman denied she has sold her influence in the White House, an allegation that is being investigated by the Justice Department.

The ex-mistress of former Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros pleaded guilty to misleading federal investigators who looked into how much money Mr. Cisneros had paid her to keep quiet about their affair.

A federal judge ordered Tyson Foods Inc. to pay $4 million in fines for giving former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy and his girlfriend thousands of dollars in illegal gifts.

That's it, one week's worth of scandal news out of Washington. Incredible.

Larry Sabato, an often-quoted professor of government at the University of Virginia, said recently that news of scandal has become the ''elevator music'' of U.S. politics. It's a telling comment. Since scandal, like elevator music, is always there in the background, it has ceased to register sharply in the public's mind.

New ethical tone

That is, first, an indictment of the Clinton administration, which promised to set a new standard of ethics in Washington. Indeed, it has done so -- a new standard for how much conniving and deception and obfuscating the public will accept.

The Republicans, to be sure, have contributed to the ''elevator music'' notion of U.S. political scandal by pressing for an advantage at every first whiff of controversy, making it more difficult for citizens to distinguish the real from the imagined. In truth, the sins of the Clinton administration needed no artificial amplification by the GOP.

The Clinton administration will run its course in three more years. The greater potential for lasting harm is that the steady, relentless evidence of official wrongdoing will dull the public's sense of outrage for many years to come. There's little doubt that if the public lowers the standards of deportment that it will accept from those who run government, many of those who run government will be happy to lower their standards accordingly.

Pub Date: 1/22/98

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