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The new Washington morality

By Godfrey Sperling Jr. / December 23, 1986



PAT BUCHANAN is trying to make the point that national interest explained the United States arms shipments to Iran, and that national interest could well excuse the routing of funds from the deal with Iran to the contra guerrillas in Nicaragua. Indeed, Mr. Buchanan spent much time at a luncheon with reporters the other day in defending President Reagan's and his own description of Lt. Col. Oliver L. North as a ``hero'' for his alleged role in diverting these profits to the guerrillas.

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The President and his communications director are convinced that history will vindicate them. They believe that such well-considered hindsight, in later years, will conclude that it was right to try to seek out a tie with those who might take over after the Ayatollah and that it was right to support those who were fighting to overthrow an emerging communist stronghold in Nicaragua - even though Congress had forbidden such support.

Buchanan concedes that if Colonel North or anyone else broke a law, he should take his punishment. He thinks, too, that this administration should lay all the facts on the table. And he says this is being done. So, he adds, ``I don't know what's driving this story anymore. I think it will begin to fade away.''

Well, the drumbeat of testimony, divulgences, and accusations continues. And while the driving force may be political, sparked in part by opportunism, there is what might best be described as a post-Watergate moral standard being applied in Washington these days. It calls for a purity in ethical conduct by public servants that would, indeed, pass a hard judgment on presidential actions in the past. It is particularly resistant to the excuse that the end justifies the means.

Thus, when Buchanan recites ``illegal'' actions of the past taken by, among others, Franklin Roosevelt and Billy Mitchell, which now are looked upon as heroic, his examples are not at all persuasive with this multitude of those upset over what they call ``Iranscam.'' The past - and past performance - of presidents and other US leaders, they contend, is irrelevant. They vehemently assert that those were different days when different standards and different judgments applied.

What we have in Washington is really a post-Vietnam morality that was first applied visibly and dramatically in the Watergate scandal.

An awful lot of people in Washington and around the country thought they got ``suckered'' into getting into the Vietnam war. They watched as Lyndon Johnson escalated the US troop commitment. They saw him get Congress to approve his involvement by way of a Tonkin Gulf resolution which (it was later discovered) was based on a Vietnam-US naval confrontation that probably never occurred - and certainly did not happen as Johnson portrayed it.

``National interest'' is no acceptable excuse for these critics. Indeed, to use such words is like waving a red flag in their faces. They remember Richard Nixon and his excuse of ``national security'' for the Watergate break-in and for a number of other seedy Nixon administration actions. And they remember clearly how the Nixon tapes showed that it was political self-interest, not national security, that caused the ``third-rate burglary,'' as Nixon's spokesman called it, of the Democratic national headquarters in the Watergate complex.

So when Buchanan depicts a possible scenario for this Iran affair that would be accepted and applauded by history as courageous acts in the interests of the United States, he may be correct. But that kind of thinking doesn't play in Washington these days.

Much of the furor today against ``Iranscam'' does stem from those who were early and openly opposed to the continuance of the Vietnam war. But while much of their opposition is politically motivated, much of it also stems from a genuine fear that the President is going to get the United States involved in another Vietnam-type war, this time in Latin America, where once again a lot of young Americans will, as they see it, die in vain.

When will it all end - when will this spotlight of intense scrutiny and criticism start to recede? Or will it intensify? It is still too early to tell. Buchanan thinks that barring ``any new dramatic revelations,'' the affair will move off center stage. He may or may not be right.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.