Okay, those of you who have ever cheated a bit on your taxes, please stand up.
Now those of you who have ever driven while tipsy do likewise. Also any of you who have ever speeded in a car, run a red light, parked illegally, lied about love, cheated a bit in business, called in sick when you were not, just happened to notice the exam book of a classmate or realized when you got home that you accidentally took something from the store and "forgot" to return it, you--all of you--stand up, too. I notice that most of us are standing.
Okay, you may be seated. The reason for this little exercise is that other little exercise known as Debategate. It involves the series of events that wound up with Jimmy Carter's briefing book in David Stockman's kitchen. But it also involves the near-universal shrug and the immortal words, "So what?"
This is approximately the reaction of House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr., whose antipathy to Jimmy Carter tends to make his ethical compass go haywire. But it was the reaction, too, of legions of others, many of them in the press, who greeted the news that there was (yet again) hanky panky in high places with roaring yawn.
There are a number of reasons for all this cynicism and weariness, one of them being the sense we all have that President Reagan, who knows so little about so much, could not possibly have known about this. After Watergate, a White House scandal that does not involve the occupant of the White House itself seems so tame as to be hardly worth our attention--even in summer.
But the primary reason for the initial indifference to Debategate is exactly what President Reagan says he abhors: The assumption that politicians do such things. They might talk about ethics, but we all think we know they don't have any.
Well, maybe. But if that is the case, then politics is hardly unique in this regard. As the exercise above proves, hypocrisy is the rule in a great many things, and if there is one thing that age (or marriage) teaches the cynical, it is not to never do anything wrong but not to get caught. If you do you are going to have to pay a price. It should be the same in politics.
In other words, most people hold ethical standards that they occasionally violate. Yet they cling to an ideal, a standard that they set not only for themselves but for others. People might, for instance, occasionally drive too fast, yet they understand that if they get caught it makes no difference that speeding is common. Similarly, it makes no difference that lots of people have cheated in school or whispered "I love you" when what they meant is "I want you."
Wrong is wrong, even though it may be routine. And one of the ways you know that is by what happens when you are discovered doing something wrong. You pay some sort of price.
And so it should be with politicians. To say with a shrug, as some did and still do about Watergate, that politicians cheat, steal, lie and tap phones, and that is simply the way it is, holds them to such a depressingly low standard it might as well be no standard at all. Instead of politicians you might as well be talking of the mentally defective or children--people who cannot be expected to know right from wrong.
But if politicians are neither infants nor idiots, then like everyone else they ought to be held to a standard--maybe, like everyone else, one they cannot always live up to. Politics is too important to be considered the backroom version of war--anything goes. Politicians themselves are too powerful and have too much opportunity to do evil for them to be held to what amounts to no standard at all. Their job is to set standards, and they ought to at least represent the best even if, from time to time, they are far from it.
That is why the saga about the Carter briefing book is important. If the book was stolen it was wrong, and it does not matter one bit whether such things are done all the time. Getting caught made all the difference. That posed the question: "What are you going to do about it?" For both the people and the press, there should be only one answer.