The taste for scandal

Stockman tells all and more than he intended. Allen gets embroiled in actions bringing about an FBI probe. Suddenly, the climate in this city changes. A kind of excitement fills the air. Some people seem gleeful. Others are sad. Everybody is interested.

''Why is it,'' I asked a colleague, ''that people prick up their ears when politicians get in trouble? Why so much interest?''

''It's because people can understand a story like this,'' said the veteran newsman. ''They can't understand the budget, they can't understand the intricacies of foreign affairs. But this is something they can understand.''

Another long-time observer comments:

''People eat, drink, and breathe politics in this city. And they are particularly titillated by the political scandal, or hint of scandal, or, as in Stockman's case, when a politician has been indiscreet.

''Also, besides those who are politically opposed to whoever is president, there are many here who don't like him very much because they or their friends or relatives may have lost their government jobs because of him.

''So whenever someone close to the president gets in trouble, particularly on a matter concerning ethics, these people leap with joy. They hope that whatever is happening may rub off negatively on the president.''

Another respected observer remarks that people instinctively sense those in public office who have flaws - and when those officials don't measure up, they are glad to see the mistakes exposed. ''I don't think that people in general are Madame Defarges, waiting for the heads to roll,'' she said.

People throughout the United States also have been interested in the developments concerning Stockman and Allen. But they don't jump to attention the way Washingtonians do when a politician is fighting for his job.

Sometimes, in the furor over ''did he or didn't he?'' or ''what did he really say or do?'' the human story of the individual involved seems forgotten.

How many remember Allen's plaintive words uttered over and over again - that he was seeking ''to protect my family and my good name''? And how many bothered to notice that Stockman, while he publicly admitted what a fool he had been, was also tearful at times as he faced the press and the TV audience, that his face was gray with the shame of having to go through such an ordeal? This is a tough city. People may feel pity. But it isn't mentioned very much.

The media earned only a ''fair'' grade for their handling of the Stockman and Allen stories. Stockman certainly said some damaging things about the President's economic program in the lengthy Atlantic article. But most people read abbreviated reports which quoted Stockman out of context, making his remarks a little more sharp-edged than they really were.

Allen was asked about the press at a breakfast meeting with reporters. He said that by and large he had no quarrel with the way he had been written about. But he complained bitterly about the way reporters had invaded his privacy at home.

No matter what the final disposition of the Allen case is, it is clear that he has not measured up to the prime requirement of a president that his national security adviser retain a low profile.

Allen, of course, feels that much of the public attention focused on him has not been of his own doing. He pleads innocent of any feuding with Haig. Yet, somehow or other, those around Allen helped feed the impression that he was indeed jousting with the secretary of state. If some of this were coming from members of Allen's staff - as some reporters insist - then Allen would be responsible for not having kept them under restraint.

Stockman's damage to the administration may be more lasting. His comments raised the question of the President's credibility. Should public trust in the President decline in the next few months, observers will point out that it all started with Stockman and his penchant for colorful metaphors.

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