MAY IT was apocryphal, but that never stopped us from enjoying the delicious historical rumor that Anthony Comstock, the founding force of citizen's committees everywhere for cleaner publications and productions, had in his possession one of the truly outstanding collections of what would now be inaccurately called "adult" material. We cannot attest to the accuracy of the rumor, but certainly it has a contemporary parallel in the field of ethics or reform. That is, individuals who have been chosen, or who have volunteered, to monitor the ethical behavior of lesser mortals have lately been slipping themselves, all over the place. This lends a certain piquancy to the congenital weakness that most Americans seem to have for reform.
First is the story about the president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce who is being investigated for misappropriating thousands of public dollars. This gentleman, James Denson, while maintaining his innocence, submitted his resignation to Mayor Barry from his appointed position as chairman of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics.
Mr. Denson had no sooner retired from the ethics-enforcement field than we read of the guilty plea by Samuel A. Garrison III of Roanoke on the charges of embezzling some $46,000 from a mobile home client whom the court had appointed attorney Garrison to represent. Mr. Garrison, after serving as staff counsel to former vice president Spiro Agnew, was the Republican counsel for the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment proceedings against former president Nixon, a post that demanded a keen ethical compass.
We do not pretend to know if persons who are appointed guardians of proper ethical behavior are cursed with some predisposition to unethical behavior from a childhood accident of whether they, after total immersion in the sights and smells of Unreformed society, merely succumb to the grotesque allure of such behavior.
But wait, there is more. Sen. Herman Talmadge of Georgia, who made a name for himself on the Senate Watergate committee, explained at some length last year why the Senate's condemnation (rather than censure) of his unethical behavior should be amended to his resume as some sort of general letter of recommendation or endorsement for reelection.
From the same House Judiciary Committee for which lawyer Garrison labored, but from the other side of the aisle, came Rep. Joshua Eilberg, who has since left the committee and Congress. One of the reasons for Mr. Eilberg's departure is that it is easier to visit his probation officer in Philadelphia -- something he must do for the next five years under court sentence -- because of compensation he received from a constituent hospital for helping it to obtain federal funds.
Moral theologians of one school admonished their students to avoid what were called proximate occasions of sin. We honestly confess that we do not know if these victims of temptation were really pristine souls, like so many public Florence Nightingales, who finally fell to the typhys of temptation after nursing the body politic, or whether they were public Anthony Comstocks. Your guess is as good as ours.