Washington Ethics Debate Gives Ethics a Bad Name

National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 1997 | Go to article overview

Washington Ethics Debate Gives Ethics a Bad Name


Ethics is an odd word hovering over the two-ringed circus currently absorbing the nation. In one ring is Newt Gingrich, accused of using tax-payers' money for his political purposes, of lying to Congress and more. In the other ring is Bill Clinton, accused of Whitewatergate, travelofficegate, Paula Jonesgate and more. To some, these transgressions may not match the brouhaha, but others see the tip of an iceberg these two politicians have been corrupting for a lifetime.

Ours is a democracy. We, supposedly, chose these two not only to make laws but to be our guides to the good life. Their falls from grace are described as breaches of ethics, a mushy word that says some things are right or wrong. In the right hands -- or minds -- ethics measures right and wrong at a fairly exalted level-the big picture, as universal and eternal as we can humanly make it. But around Washington in the late 20th century, ethics is all about who has the best lawyer, the political edge, who is doing ill or well in the polls, who might get impeached or go to jail.

The word "morality" is less frequently used to deal with the current shenanigans. It denotes a more pure form of right as opposed to wrong, but in popular usage it has grown mushy too.

Though both Clinton and Gingrich belong to the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is seldom a word about Judaic or Christian morality among politicians. The Christian ethos once ruled kings and scholars as well as peasants, but then it dried up. To measure public figures' words and actions against the words and deeds of Jesus, for example, would be seen in today's political circles as the height of incongruity, if not bad taste. Nor have the fabricators of the public weal found a suitable lesser god with a longer moral leash.

So how about an old pagan?

The democracy of which we interminably boast got its start in Greece, as everyone knows. History makes clear that this early democracy was as defective as ours, only more so. …

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