THE ethics accusations of a House of Representatives committee
against Speaker Jim Wright fit into a pattern of heightened public
attention to ethics and of increased use by both parties of ethics
charges as a political weapon, analysts here say.
In the decade and a half since Watergate, America has been "using
scandal increasingly as a way of doing political business," says
ethics expert Suzanne Garment. "And this choice of weapons has great
costs," she says. It can result in greater public cynicism about all
politicians and difficulty in obtaining quality appointees, she
At the same time, says ethics specialist Michael Josephson, the
increased attention to ethical considerations will be beneficial.
"When all the smoke clears," he says, "we're going to start finding
ourselves with de facto standards of conduct that are much higher
than ever before."
A key reason for the rising public attention to ethics, James
Thurber says, is a radical change in press coverage. "From 1960 to
the present, there's been a revolution in terms of what gets
reported," says Dr. Thurber, director of the Center for
Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.
The increased hurling of ethics charges "is incredibly disruptive
and incredibly poisonous of the atmosphere" of government, says Mrs.
Garment, who is writing a book on scandal and ethics in Washington.
"The public attitudes about Congress are very low already," says
Thurber. The charges against Wright "hurt the image of the entire
institution" of Congress. "There are a whole lot of people out there
who say `See, now we have proof - everybody's on the take."'
But that isn't true, says Thurber, who points out that there are
a lot of hard-working members of Congress who are conducting
"In the most immediate sense," agrees Mr. Josephson, president of
the Josephson Institute for the Advancement of Ethics, "all this
does is increase public cynicism."
Josephson adds that both Democrats and Republicans use ethics
accusations as weaponry, and cites the cases made against
Republicans Michael Deaver, Edwin Meese, John Tower, and the
accusations beginning to be leveled at Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of
Georgia. The accusations against the Republican whip involve
questions about the profit arrangements from the publication of his
book. Mr. Gingrich originally was Speaker Wright's chief accuser.
In most ethics accusations "the motivation is not truly to
improve the level of government," Josephson says, "and make it
something that the people can respect." Rather the motivation, he
says, is a desire to gain political advantage, a point not lost on
The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct insists that
the findings it made public April 17 were reached in thoroughly
nonpartisan deliberations. It found that there is "reason to
believe" that Speaker Wright violated House rules in two general
areas. One concerns seven bulk sales of his book, "Reflections of a
Public Man," which the committee said "demonstrated an overall
scheme to evade" the limits on paid honoraria.
The second is the area of gifts. The committee said Wright
"appears to have accepted nearly $145,000" in gifts from a friend,
George Mallick; it added that it had "reason to believe" that Mr. …