Paris — Europeans are baffled and worried by the fall of former presidential candidate Gary Hart and the congressional probe of the Iran-contra scandal. How, they wonder, can a politician be brought down by keeping company with a young model? Europeans, by and large, accept and even condone philandering political leaders.
And why, they ask, must a President's actions be subject to prolonged legislative probing? European executives enjoy power with few restraints.
These questions come at a delicate time. Since the Vietnam war and Watergate, the Europeans have nurtured fears that their military protector was weakening. The rise of Ronald Reagan temporarily reassured them. But now, with crucial decisions looming about the future of nuclear arms in Europe, the old fears are being rekindled.
``These scandals make it hard to have confidence in America,'' says Philippe Moreau Defarges, an analyst at the French Institute of Foreign Relations; ``and above all, what we need at this moment is confidence in America.''
A fundamental misunderstanding explains this ebbing confidence. Although most Americans feel that press investigations of candidates' private lives and congressional investigations of potential presidential misconduct are proof of a strong democracy, most Europeans worry that such practices eat into national self-confidence.
It's ``self-flagellation,'' said the Paris newspaper Le Monde in a front-page editorial about the Irangate hearings. For the French editorialists of this left-wing daily, the investigation represents ``a typically American spectacle'' with ``evident'' risks: ``the loss of confidence of a people in its leaders, the weakness of the national community, and by consequence, a gift to the foes of freedom.''
In the backs of their minds, Europeans remember with horror Richard Nixon's fall.
On the Continent, Mr. Nixon was widely admired as a strong, reliable leader who was brought down by what Europeans consider an insignificant political intrigue.
``We don't think in terms of morality,'' says Mr. Defarges. ``We judge in terms of efficiency.''
Of course, this feeling varies throughout the Continent. Germans, deeply affected by Adolf Hitler's atrocities, never feel comfortable writing off moral principles.
Other Europeans, however, give their leaders wide leeway.
When French spies in New Zealand blew up Rainbow Warrior, a ship belonging to the Greenpeace ecological group, few in France questioned the action's legality. The resulting furor stemmed from anger over how the botched plan sullied France's national honor. Parliament enjoyed no subpoena power to investigate the matter. And when some suggested that a special parliamentary investigation be launched, opposition leaders refused to take part. They said Parliament should not interfere in national-security matters involving the secret services.
In Britain, similar, if less extreme, attitudes prevail. When three London newspapers reported recently that British spy services plotted to overthrow former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1974, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher defended the security forces after her own investigation showed no such plot. She plans to prosecute the newspapermen for publishing official secrets. Parliament's security commission was not called to investigate.
``From time to time, the security commission is given the powers to interview people and make a report to government,'' says Josephine O'Connor-Howe, an official at the London-based Center for Security and Conflict Studies. ``But it's never done in public like your congressional committees. We don't think such publicity does any good.''
Gary Hart's public problems probably would not have happened in Europe.
With the possible exception of Britain, where reports of infidelity occasionally bring down such rising stars as the Conservative Party's Cecil Parkinson, reports of political leaders' sexual escapades get scant attention.
Former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt was widely rumored to be a lady's man, but he was a popular leader of the Social Democratic Party for nearly 30 years. When former French President Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing was involved in a traffic accident one night while driving with a pretty lady other than his wife, few articles appeared.
``If you have a mistress here, it's thought of as a plus,'' says one French political observer, who asks to remain anonymous.
Europeans believe a politician's affairs are his private business, separate from his public business. Marital infidelity, some say, long has been a fact of life. In their view, the American approach, publicly condemning what many privately condone, is hyprocritical.
``How can revelations about the sexual behavior of a senator enlighten public opinion on his policies and ideological options?'' asked Le Monde.
The respected Madrid daily El Pa'is put the entire episode down to American ``puritanism.''
These cultural differences spotlight important facets of transatlantic relations. Most Europeans would prefer men like John Kennedy or Richard Nixon, men whose personal morality was questionable but whose public positions were strong, to men like Jimmy Carter, who was perceived as moral but weak.
That Americans expect their leaders to adhere to certain standards of morality promises to serve as a source of continual misunderstanding with its allies.
Just as worrying to Europeans is what they see as an American penchant for destroying its leaders. The British magazine The Economist, observing that all recent American presidencies from Nixon to Gerald Ford, through Carter and Reagan, ``went sour to some degree,'' commented that ``the odds seem to be against the emergence of another Lincoln.''
``Blame the candidates, for their shortcomings; blame the press, for exposing them, and more: blame the people, for expecting the impossible, which,'' The Economist wrote, ``only a freak could deliver.''