MAYBE WHAT THE COUNTRY needs is a Ministry of Acceptable Argument-wth a Special Task Force on Indiscretions and a Working Group on Who May Say What. We reach this conclusion by way of a weekend of agitation and controversy over which government officials have been talking much and which too little.
The president's chief inflation-fighter Alfred Kahn has been denounced for saying things about the Teamster's settlement-that it was responsible and restrained-which, though true and know to all, are not helpful. For when said aloud by Mr. Kahn these things embarrass the Teamsters' leadership, which want its rank and file to know how successfully agressive it has been. There is also the dispute over whether a Senate subcommittee report on the bleak prospects for the flow of Saudi oil in the 1980s should have been released. Since the Saudis are presumably aware of the prospects and since what Sen. Javits called the "note of realism" in the report could only help in making policy, the report was issued-but without certain subpoenaed records of conversations that might affront the Saudis and embarrass the oil companies.
The larger, consequential argument is over the transcripts of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's deliberations during the Three Mile Island reactor scare. These are remarkable documents, for whose release the public owes a substantial debt to Rep. Morris K. Udall's House energy subcommittee. They too raise questions of discretion, privacy, embarrassment and the legitimacy (or lack of it) of government officials' fine-tuning their statements with a view to fulfilling some sense of what the public should hear.
The first thing the turmoil suggests is that people who believe tapes and transcripts of the NRC kind should be put out in the name of truth, in turn owe it to truth to listen to them with at least a modicum of insight and understanding and to provide retroactive context where they can. Chairman Joseph Hendrie, for one, does not come out of the portions of the transcripts we have read sounding exactly like a champion of public andor. Some of his remarks are terrible. But what needs to be remembered in reading the conversations as a whole is that pressure-valve grisly jokes and periodic forays into trivia and the introduction (and withdrawal) of wild ideas for dealing with the problem at hand-all this is the normal stuff of any such deliberations.
These were anxious, burdened, baffled men who had a gigantic responsibility and next to no precedent or experience for dealing with it. And that is what is valuable in the transcripts and what should be drawn from a reading of them. They provide as good a guide as any you could want to the uncharted territory of nuclear reactordom. They demonstrate, irrefutably, how much yet needs to be done to provide a relatively stable and secure system of protection against nuclear accidents.
Then there is spokesmanship. You don't need to be puppy-dog trusting of authority or inclined to let the news managers get away with a whole lot to concede that the White House and the nuclear regulators should have been worried about what information they were putting out and how it would be received. That is not an invitation to lying, but rather an invitation to being responsible. Peill-mell, premature, panicinducing infommation could have led to terrible consequences too. There is something either fatuous or disingenuous in the responses of those who suggest that White House spokesman Jody Powell's insistent, nagging interest was, on its face, misplaced or "political" in some shabby sense.
Maybe when the new Ministry is in place all that will be different. But we rather doubt it. The trouble lies, and probably always will, in that built-in realm of sham and shadow between what the government knows and what it finds prudent, wise or politically convenient to admit that it knows.