There is an air of melancholy and a sense of political coming apart in Washington these days. Both are justified. Personal misfortune and personal scandal are both present in the final season of the Reagan administration. Much is over: antagonists within the government (Stockman vs. Regan, Deaver vs. Clark, Meese vs. Brock, Weinberger vs. Shultz) have either won or lost their fights with each other or departed from the scene altogether, so that except for the question of whether the Republican candidates will turn against their president's arms treaty, there isn't much left of the tension and suspense that somehow breed political energy and fuel excitement in this town. The social climbers are already trying to figure out where to place their bets for the future but are of pretty glum spirit as they case the possibilities for president, all of whom look unlikely to succeed. Ronald Reagan's supporters on the outside petition him to reassert "leadership," while his detractors hail the end of his era and pronounce it to have been an aberration in our national life, a time of officially sanctioned sleaziness and greed.
It is this epitaph writing that especially interests me. Those who compose the epitaphs for departed administrations are invariably inconsistent and unfair. The same public that hailed Ford for his down-to-earth good-heartedness and simplicity after the byzantine Nixon years derided him and his works as "dumb" by the time he left; it embraced Carter's walk down Pennsylvania Avenue and his homely insistence on reforming the "imperial presidency" by toting his own suitcase and the like and then decided it hated and was demeaned by all these hokey gestures.
Just so, Reagan & Co., who were seen as restoring a certain unabashed middle-class indulgence in the more comfortable things in life, as re-creating a certain life style that had fallen into senseless political disrepute -- you could dress up again, you didn't have to go to folk dances or apologize for your new car -- are now stigmatized as political and ideological godfathers of the Me Age, perfect spiritual leaders for the driven investment bankers and acquisitive Yuppies whose recent financial troubles have brought so much coldhearted pleasure to others in recent weeks. Already you will have read the analyses proclaiming the Reagan years the years of peculiar self-enrichment and self-absorption and asserting with a sigh of relief that those times are about to be over and that a more selfless, public-spirited age is about to dawn.
I have seen the charts that show the number of administration appointees and associates who have crossed the line of proper conduct in feathering their nests and, in some cases, actually committing crimes. You open your paper on any given day and you read about the grand juries and the special prosecutors and the questionable calls, the hustles and the scams and the overreachings, and it's pretty depressing. Even accepting that some of the charges brought are groundless and others overblown, it is apparent to me that time and again people did things and were allowed to get away with things that should never have been allowed, that the discipline was loose, the attitude one of "anything goes." So I accept the evidence of much rapacity in high places over the past several years. What I dispute is the idea that the Reagan government somehow was originator and sole patron of a pernicious trend in American public life.
Alas, the affliction is widespread, seemingly everywhere, respecting neither party, racial, class nor ideological lines. We seem to be on a great national loot. Everyday it seems as though I am treated to matching scandals: one from my national government, the other from the administration of the city I live in. This is not just a Washington phenomenon either; the Democratic administration of New York City, as much as the Democratic administration of the city of Washington, Mayor Koch's government, not just Mayor Barry's, has provided us with an unending saga of ripoffs.
Does the malfeasance in high places merely reflect the larceny in the population as a whole? Or does it create and feed that larceny, the misbehavior of the leaders giving the general public a green light to cut corners, cadge and, as they say, look out for number one? Who knows? For that matter, who cares? It will never be possible to resolve this chicken-and-egg question, and there will always be those for whom one theory or the other will be politically and personally more satisfying. But I think it will be a big mistake simply to unload the blame, as many are doing now, on the hate object of their choice: the Reagan administration in Washington or the blacks who run the local government here or the largely Jewish cohort of investment manipulators on Wall Street, to name but a few of the preferred scapegoat groups. For the fact is that the me-ishness we all seem so universally and smugly to deplore is insinuated into just about every aspect of the current culture -- disguised, perhaps, even ennobled with some grand-sounding double talk, but there.
I am thinking not just of the latter-day hymns to rugged individualism and predatory business enterprise, nor even of the ghastly, self-satisfied boastings of all those rich young people you see pictured in the magazines -- "26 and working on his second billion" -- who seem to have had moral lobotomies. For even those who most abominate the handiwork of these people are like them in one key way: they, too, have worked out a rationale for self-gratification as a way of life and are in their own way part of the general trend. Listen to them talk, the beautiful-people celebrities of the left who are among the fiercest critics of the social selfishness of the Reagan crowd. "I had to learn to like myself," they will tell the interviewer at the drop of a hat, "I had to learn to please myself." The songs they sing will pipe the same message.
This is how far we have come: even much of our altruism is self-indulgent, greedy. How many of these crusades for one deprived group or another have we seen picked up, exploited and dropped as its "feel good" potential is used up and those allegedly giving their all have no more to get from the crusade in the way of personal gratification. I think there is much to the charge that these have been the Me years, but much, much more than can be encompassed in a superficial effort to lay it all off on the Reagan government. Maybe some candidate in the next year will break the spell, will get us away from our mirrors and our bankbooks long enough to tell the truth. Nobody's got a corner on virtue in this one.