We have been having a couple of Abbott and Costello weeks in Washington: Adelman hearings, EPA firings, charge and countercharge. Watergate had such a phase, those diverting spring days of 1973 when there seemed to be an astonishment a minute. Who knew who was on first? We love these periods--always have--even though, when asked, the political city assumes its most somber expression and intones as one, "Mercy, it is terrible for the nation; no one could be enjoying this." On the day the Almighty is listening, we will probably all be annihilated by a lightning bolt.
Before that happens I have a few things to say. I think the spectacle--the sloppiness of procedures, the imprecision and ever-changing nature of the charges, the double standards and sharp practices employed on all sides of the different arguments--is disgusting. Don't get me wrong. I've lived in this city long enough to be prepared to find out that just about anyone is guilty of just about anything; and for all I know, every one of the purported wrongdoers on the current Washington scene may be in chains by a week from Wednesday. I don't go bail for them; anything could come out. But I do have the impression that we have been seized by a kind of uncontrolled-mob mood, one that could result in a number of people's getting hurt unnecessarily.
By "we" I mean more than the Washington press or the congressional investigators or all those people trying to fire each other or, for that matter, the capital itself. Somehow, the whole country seems to get engaged--rapidly, willingly, even joyously--in these episodes of ruin, episodes in which someone of whom most people had practically never heard only a short while before becomes the embodiment of all things defective or evil. The charges may be false; they may be true in some special respect but, in their presentation, wildly disproportionate to the truth. We all have a good time. The victim staggers away. We go on to something else.
You want names? Well, how about Hamilton Jordan, up on that eventually dropped drug-use charge that was all the rage for a time? How about Clement Haynsworth, a respectable and respected U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals judge who, in the protracted process of being rejected by the Senate for the Supreme Court in 1969, was re-created in caricature as a total professional and moral disaster? As one who originally favored the confirmation of Judge Haynsworth but, about midway through the agony, felt he should step down because he had been so badly mauled and his prospects of success had become so dim, I am a somewhat ashamed authority on one particular aspect of these affairs. Invariably there comes a point when neutral observers as well as certain red-hot defenders start insisting that although (1) the poor devil in question is really nothing like the monster that is emerging as his image, and (2) the more serious charges against him have yet to be proved, he should, in the interest of some greater public good, get lost.
The effort to get Kenneth Adelman confirmed as head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency has reminded me forcefully of the national argument over Judge Haynsworth's suitability for the court. This is not just because it was an issue then, as it is now, whether a president was acting reasonably in nominating for a job a competent man who shared his particular outlook on relevant subjects. It is also that the nominee then, as now, got trashed: his positions were distorted, his defects greatly magnified, his qualifications ridiculed or, more generally, ignored. Judge Haynsworth was made to personify sleaziness and racism. Kenneth Adelman has been reconstituted as a mad bomber. You don't have to believe either man to have been the most marvelous choice in the world to know that these are untruths. The closest thing to an apology you get from those antagonists of Adelman who actually know better is the unctuous assertion that he really shouldn't take it too hard or personally since the object of the exercise is only to show Reagan that a lot of people prefer other policies.
Concerning the EPA circus and who over there may be guilty of what, I know that some serious congressional investigators have had surpassing difficulty trying to get a straight story from the administration and so can hardly be blamed for being without all the facts. And I am also aware--I think all of us are--that it is not just crimes you can be arraigned for in court, but also improprieties unbefitting a public official that should be the subject of people's concern; too many government crumbums over the years have sought refuge in the weak defense that they actually broke no federal statute and thus are without blame.
But even granting all this, I still reach a couple of disagreeable conclusions. One is that the air has been full of charges--this one "may" have committed perjury, that one (at least on hearsay) was in the tank, yet another was "probably" fired for telling the truth--that render suspect the plea that those making such charges have been especially troubled or inhibited by the lack of solid documentation. On the contrary, one senses a certain relish and self-indulgence here and not just on the part of some of Reagan's congressional critics, but also on the part of the press nationally and the pretzel chompers in the audience too. Rita Lavelle and Anne Burford are the best things that have happened to the soap- operatic political-scandal industry since Dita Beard jumped out of the ITT cake: EPA and its sorrows have become a sexist entertainment.
My second conclusion is that precisely because we have come to consider improprieties, not just demonstrable felonies, a fit matter for public inquiry and censure, a higher standard of fairness and judiciousness should prevail--not a lower, looser one. The license is too broad and the possibilities of unjust hurt are too numerous to proceed with casual intellectual and ethical standards. A lot of young people I know seem to think that Sen. Joseph McCarthy was about communism and American policy. To me he was always about political hit-and-run driving, about the abuse of public susceptibilities and the exploitation of the media to hurt or ruin individuals in a great game. I'm not saying that's where we are now, only that I don't like the feel of it.