Washington is so beautiful in this season that it hardly seems reasonable for the president of the United States to be half-a-world away. The dogwoods and azaleas have painted the White House neighborhood with a palette any artist would envy. The lilacs are perfuming the air.
In other respects, however, Ronald Reagan may have few regrets about escaping the atmosphere of the capital. Senate Republicans are writing a budget he will not like. The Senate Finance Committee is making a hash of his tax- reform bill. House Democrats remain stubbornly unconvinced of the wisdom of his Nicaraguan policy. And investigators on Capitol Hill and a dozen news organizations are circling around Michael K. Deaver.
As much as the president may care about his budget, tax and Nicaraguan policies, it's safe to guess he is most offended by the treatment of Deaver. Of all the personal aides who have served him over the past 20 years, none has been more loyal and none more esteemed by both Ronald and Nancy Reagan than the former White House deputy chief of staff and public relations adviser.
When Deaver resigned last year to reenter private business, he kept his White House pass and remained on the exclusive list of those who receive the president's full daily schedule. When charges began to circulate that Deaver's lobbying was violating the law restricting ex-officials' dealings with people and issues they managed in their government days, Reagan proclaimed his "utmost faith" in Deaver's probity.
But the issue will not go away. Instead, it has revived the charge that there has been a pattern of flagrant conflicts of interest among a great many of the men and women who came to Washington in this administration.
To conservatives, these charges are simply further evidence that the "Washington Establishment" will try to repulse the Reaganites by hook or by crook. They are right in suggesting that the merchandising of influence and access did not begin on the day Jimmy Carter left town.
Long before the Reaganites came, there were well-established and successful Democratic law firms with partners who did little but arrange fund-raisers for members of Congress. There were ex-Cabinet members and ex-senators who drew six-figure salaries for giving elegant lunches and dinners for their firms' clients and their old friends on Capitol Hill and the White House staff.
Some of these folks have acquired such a patina of respectability, not to mention prosperity, that only the old- timers remember they were hungry young lawyers or public-relations men when a president or a powerful senator launched them into their new world of influence. All of this was going on before Reagan's time and will continue, I am sure, when he has gone to the ranch.
What is striking now is the brazenness of the commercialization of contacts, the absolutely unabashed exploitation of government service for private gain. It is this which is different and disturbing to many of the old Washington hands -- Republicans as well as Democrats.
One of them -- a former Republican legislator and Cabinet officer -- recalled that a friend of ours had won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing and forcing the resignation of a service secretary in the Kennedy administration who had been soliciting business for his old company on his official stationery. "Nowadays," he said, "they'd think that he was just getting the jump on the competition."
It is patently false, in my judgment, to suggest that Republicans are especially prone to cash in on their government service. To cite but one example, former representative Barber B. Conable Jr. of New York, who had been the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, last year turned his back on huge retainers, because he did not want to lobby his former colleagues.
But Conable was no Reaganite, and it is not easy to dismiss the comment of Charles L. Dempsey, inspector general of the scandal-plagued Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development during Reagan's first term. He told The Post's Howard Kurtz: "This administration is loaded with guys bringing the business morality to Washington, and some of them never learn. It's like they flunked a course in basic civics."
The greatest political burden for Republicans -- the counterpart to the Democrats' reputation for profligacy -- is the suspicion of unchecked selfishness. Many voters still think Republicans practice the politics of greed. Reagan has erased many blemishes on his party's portrait. He's done little so far to cure this one.
In a recent column about athletics and academic standards, I erred in stating that it was unprecedented for promising athletes to flunk out of the University of Georgia. As many correspondents and Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Lewis Grizzard pointed out, there have been several instances of such dismissals in recent years. My apologies to the university and its fans.