We've been having a lot of fun in Washington these days, fun of a kind we never admit to. The revelations are coming thick and fast -- Mike Deaver, Kurt Waldheim, the whole kit and caboodle at NASA. We profess shock and affect fury, but anyone who has been around Washington for more than an hour and a half knows that while some people are genuinely outraged, the predominant emotion is glee and the predominant experience titillation.
We love unexpected scandal, so long as it has elements of both the retributive and the bizarre. People are pleased when the mighty fall, especially if they fall in ironic ways. One afternoon more than a decade ago the managing editor of The Washington Post burst into my office, carrying a large glossy photograph of a scantily clad woman named Fanne Foxe who looked like somebody's land-based deterrent about to be fired. "This is what you would have looked like," he said, "if you hadn't started smoking at 10." Who was she? Now came the part he'd been waiting for: Wilbur Mills's girlfriend, picked up with Mills by police the other night in a drunken revel.
Given that Wilbur Mills, then chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, had long been known as an awesomely straitlaced, fastidious and single-minded legislator, this was in its way the quintessential revelation, life imitating Mel Brooks. It was the most antic disclosure since America had learned that its self-appointed moral mentor, Spiro T. Agnew, was taking envelopes of payoff cash in the vice presidential office. The Waldheim saga fits into this category of gruesome cosmic jokes: former U.N. secretary-general, seeker after peace and so forth, charged with being a Nazi war criminal.
The Deaver stuff is less spectacular and more predictable; those who are relishing it, as distinct from those who are truly offended, are mainly relishing the deepening troubles of a once all-important guy. The NASA scandal has this and more. For years a reigning clich,e of Washington politics and journalism has been that it was too bad the Pentagon couldn't be as efficient and effective as NASA. NASA was in fact the detested exemplary sibling of federal agencies: "Why can't you be nice like Sally Ann?" Now we know. A New York Times freedom of information action has produced evidence of monstrous cost overruns and program deficiencies at NASA over the years -- NASA, the government's model child.
Before we all settle down to enjoy the fun, however, I have a spoilsport question. How come we didn't know all these things before? Here's another. Can it actually be true that we of the press along with the folks who make up the political opposition in town and those who function as nonpartisan, public-interest troublemakers are as cynical and irreverent and destructive and disrespectful of authority as we are said to be? If it is true, then where on earth have we been? The image of the press these days is that shown in the movie "The Right Stuff," a mob of pressing, yiping disturbers of the peace. Why have we disturbed so little? Hardly a thing has been uncovered in the past couple of weeks on any of the cases now agitating the headlines that was not available to be dug out long ago.
Some people invoke a conspiracy theory in response, asserting that it is no accident that these things have come out now and pointing out how the disclosures serve someone or other's political interest. But unfortunately it is an accident. No less than last winter's space catastrophe, which trained unwonted attention on the workings of NASA, chance events led to the pursuit of the other stories. I have my own analysis of why it is that this country's hard- breathing journalists and the absolutely panting political opponents of the established order can be at once so distrustful of authority -- of the authorized version of practically anything -- and yet so often completely oblivious to the scandal about them.
Our cynicism is easy to account for. We would be crazy to approach public life in any other way. The recently uncovered stories that have made big news in the past couple of weeks are themselves one clue why. The political history of our time has been, it seems to me, a chain of such surprises and inversions of accepted truth. Each can only deepen the journalist's gut certainty that he is at least half of the time being taken for a ride when officialdom opens its mouth.
Not that we need surreal scandal to prove the point. Every reporter in Washington, and every diplomat and lobbyist and pol, for that matter, knows that there is a vast gulf between what the official says to you on the record and what he says off it. There can't be many journalists in town who haven't had the fairly common experience of hearing a person completely reverse course on a hot public question within weeks of leaving the government or whatever other institution he's been attached to. We've had people come to The Washington Post editorial conference to argue for something -- funds for the antiballistic missile is an example -- while they were in an administration and come to us to argue against the same thing only months later when they had left their government jobs.
Newsweek readers who pondered the excerpts from David Stockman's book will know such memoirs play a part as well. Alexander Haig, Anne Burford and others from this administration, not to mention other moguls from earlier administrations, regularly offer up now- it-can-be-told expos,es that utterly confound the all-is-well bulletins that were coming out when they were in office. The problem in our response is that each new revelation tends to make us more cynical in a kind of diffuse, undirected way, to reinforce indiscriminate disbelief, so that we routinely harass a lot of innocents -- and let the big fish get away. What I'm saying is that, despite what you think, you need a tougher, more focused, less trusting and accepting press. We should be embarrassed, not amused, by the current revelations.