This is one of those weeks that Washington loves: a whiff of scandal in the air, a confidant of the president twisting slowly in the wind, congressional investigators pressing on with highly publicized hearings, the media pack in full assemblage and panting after the newest disclosure, and everything taking place amid the promise of more damaging developments to come. Perhaps, like the Bert Lance affair, this, too, will last into the slow summer months and hold the capital in thrall.
That is not to suggest that the Michael Deaver affair is a synthetically manufactured drama without real significance. It is to suggest that preoccupation only with Deaver's plight misses the mark.
The Deaver case is most significant as a symbol of a far more important Washington subject: the standards that govern public service here in the era of "privatization." They are low and sinking.
As the Deaver episode unfolds, inevitably drawing more and more public attention, questions are being raised about the adequacy of laws and codes of conduct governing conflicts of interest and proper behavior for government officials. Various proposals to remedy them are being floated. First, it is said, the laws and/or codes ought to be strengthened. Second, given the penchant for Washington to believe that all things can be "solved" by passing a law, there is talk of drafting news ones to replace the old.
Nonsense. No new laws are needed, no new codes of conduct required. The solution to this question of ethics is simply to observe the letter and the spirit of existing laws and codes and rigorously enforce them.
That has not been happening. The so-called "Office of Government Ethics" is a joke. Established as a bureaucratic means of overseeing and implementing ethical guidelines and rules already in existence, it does so by silence.
Even if it were functioning as intended, the greater problem involving diminishing standards of public service would remain. An officially sanctioned air of indifference to all questions of ethical conduct and impropriety permeates Washington.
Sadly, and ironically, President Reagan has set the tone for this state of affairs. It is reflected throughout his administration. His response to legitimate, not witch-hunting, questions about ethical standards of public service has been to dismiss them as simply not matters of serious concern.
That's the way he has repeatedly dealt with new allegations arising out of the developing Deaver case. He dismisses them. They are either unimportant or derive from others' resentment of Deaver's success since leaving the president's service as White House deputy chief of staff. Reagan said: "So I think maybe the criticism is just because he is being darn successful and deservedly so."
In this, Reagan is wrong. The basic criticism about Deaver and others like him who have left high office for high private profit through government dealings revolves around fundamental questions of public service. Have they been sensitive not only to the letter of the law but to the spirit of avoiding the appearance of cashing in on their public service? If not, what kinds of signals are they sending to those who remain in government service and those who plan to enter?
It will be unfortunate if the focus on Deaver leads the country to see this as another just-politics, made-in- Washington story in which one side seeks to exploit a problem for partisan advantage. It is neither a partisan story of Democrats versus Republicans nor an ideological one pitting liberals against conservatives.
In that respect, the comments of South Carolina's conservative Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond admirably go to the heart of the real issue of setting desirable standards for public service. "I have always believed it was improper for people to hold high positions in the government and then turn around and use that position for profit," he said.
A similiar statement from the president would be welcome. Instead of talking about bureaucratic fraud and about waste and abuse in government agencies, he should address the greater abuse in government today -- the erosion of the concept of public service and the notion of excellence in public life. That's a theme worthy of a great communicator who happens to be president of all the people.