Blaming the messenger is an ancient political art form, but seldom has the full range of such officious shifting of responsibility been more publicly displayed than in incidents this summer. Taken together, they reflect unfavorably on attitudes of official Washington.
Even as cinders still smoldered from buildings torched during an uprising at Lorton Reformatory, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry was placing major blame not on conditions over which he had responsibility, but on publication of a blistery critical official report predicting that such a disturbance would occur unless the city instituted major reforms at Lorton.
As if to demonstrate that such bureaucratic maneuvering is not limited to local government, at about the same time The Washington Post's Fred Hiatt reported a classic example of similar federal stupidity.
At the Pentagon, two of the Navy's top civilian aides "got" a widely respected former Defense Department official. Lawrence J. Korb, manpower chief for the Pentagon during the first four years of the Reagan presidency, was forced out of his executive position in Washington with Raytheon Co., the nation's third-largest arms merchant, whose Pentagon contracts are a matter of economic life and death for the firm.
Korb's crime? He wasn't supporting President Reagan's arms program "enthusiastically enough," according to the Navy officials. That's a euphemism for being too candid and straight. The Navy officials warned Raytheon in writing that having someone such as Korb on the payroll could jeopardize its business dealings with the Pentagon. Naturally, Korb lost his job. Raytheon got the two missile contracts on which it was then bidding.
Hiatt quotes Korb as being "aghast" that officials would target him "rather than deal with the issues on their merits." But of course it was the officials who triumphed, not the messenger.
A third incident deals with the behavior of a U.S. senator.
By an unhappy circumstance, North Carolina's Jesse Helms was in Santiago, Chile, about the time that the U.S. ambasssador attended a funeral for a promising young student, Rodrigo Rojas de Negri. Witnesses said Rojas, 19, was burned to death by soldiers of the Pinochet regime at an antigovernment demonstration. The young man had been living in Washington with his mother, a political exile. A recent graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School here, Rojas was on a brief visit to his native Chile when he died. The funeral itself was marred when police officers broke it up with tear gas.
Helms did not condemn the brutal behavior of the troops, the police or the repressive Pinochet dictatorship. He condemned our ambassador, Harry G. Barnes Jr., as acting improperly by attending the funeral.
Of these three incidents, the one least worthy of extended comment involves Helms. His reaction to a human tragedy was beneath contempt.
The lesson in the other incidents is familiar to anyone who knows the bureaucratic cast of mind.
Don't tell it like it is. Don't rock the boat. Don't blow the whistle. Don't adhere to the highest standards. If you do, you'll be the one to pay the price, not the institution that is attempting -- and, in the Pentagon example, successfully -- to cover its rear.
It's all part of the "which-side-are-you-on?" mentality that characterized much of the rationalizing in Washington during the Vietnam war and Pentagon Papers period.
Something of the same mentality was highlighted in the aftermath of the Lorton uprising. The Justice Department announced it was forming a task force to investigate criminal activities at the reformatory after the incident left half a dozen buildings in smoking ruins and many people injured. Certainly, no one could quarrel with that. But then Henry E. Hudson, U.S. attorney for eastern Virginia, said: "In our view, the time has come to wrest control from the prisoners at Lorton and place it back into the hands of law-enforcement officers."
Not, mind you, that the time has come to address the serious and specific examples of prison conditions carefully documented by Kathryn Monaco, the lawyer and corrections expert who studied D.C. prison facilities as a paid consultant for the city.
Naturally, that is not the kind of message that officials are heeding or want to hear. Just another example, government fans, that all's well in Washington.