Boston — To some, the Iran-contra affair is part of a cloudburst of evidence showing that, as far as ethics is concerned, the Reagan administration is ``at the bottom of the barrel,'' to quote Fred Wertheimer, the president of Common Cause. The improprieties are widespread, ``go to the heart of the administration's activities,'' and have gone largely uncondemned by President Reagan, Mr. Wertheimer says.
But others, like Burton Yale Pines, senior vice-president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, are not overly concerned. Mr. Pines does not deny there have been indiscretions and allegations, but says that only ``in very few cases have there been ethical breaches.''
Who's right? Consider:
The increased size and role of the federal government since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal agencies and World War II. Before that, most of the laws that mattered were made by the states, and ``people just weren't paying attention'' to what was going on in Washington, Mr. Pines says.
The heightened press scrutiny since Watergate - a level that some observers say has reached intolerable levels this year. ``What was once considered appropriate only for the National Enquirer now occupies the front page of the New York Times,'' says Barbara Kellerman, an authority on the American presidency.
The fact that Ronald Reagan has been in power longer than any president in the past 30 years. Even if the level of misdeeds were equal to that of other administrations, the aggregate number would be greater.
The fact that the Reagan administration is the first to operate wholly under the Watergate-inspired Ethics in Government Act of 1978. With more rules to break, the theory goes, more rules are broken. The flip side of this argument is provided by Wertheimer: With so many ``good'' ethics rules on the books, he asks, why isn't the Reagan administration enforcing them better?
Comparing the ethics of this administration with that of others ``is not a quantitative issue,'' says Dr. Kellerman, dean of graduate studies and research at Fairleigh Dickinson University. John Kennedy's presidency was abruptly ended by his assassination; Lyndon Johnson's overshadowed by Vietnam, and Richard Nixon's by Watergate. Gerald Ford was hardly in office long enough to outlive his ``honeymoon'' with the press before he had to start campaigning for election. Jimmy Carter had only four years, and he placed ``a particularly high emphasis'' on moral and ethical considerations.
This does not excuse ethical missteps, Kellerman says. President Reagan ``comes out pretty poorly,'' given the record of people around him. More than 100 - an unprecedented number - of his aides have faced allegations of questionable activities, according to Time magazine.
Former Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan was exonerated last May of fraud and larceny charges. A 1984 probe by an independent counsel cleared Attorney General Edwin Meese III of financial wrongdoing. But Reagan aides Michael Deaver and Lyn Nofziger face charges of influence peddling. Former national-security advisers Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter and other officials are under scrutiny for their roles in the Iran-contra affair. And Mr. Meese is the subject of a second probe, about his ties to the Wedtech Corporation.
Kellerman sees a ``demythologizing'' process going on. In this age of instant communication, she says, ``it's very, very difficult to maintain the sense of mystery needed to maintain an untarnished leadership.'' Mr. Reagan's popularity was enormously high for six years, she says; had he not run for a second term, he would have left office wearing ``wreaths of glory.''
Today, Pines says, ``Washington is such a fishbowl that if Harry Truman or Lyndon Johnson were here, they wouldn't last a month.'' As scandals go, Watergate and Teapot Dome (secret oil leases granted during the Harding administration in the 1920s) loom much larger than Iran-contra, in most observers' minds.
But the roots of what bothers some about the ethics of the Reagan administration lie much deeper than historical comparisons. These critics point to what they see as failings in the President's example.
With Ronald Reagan, says Donald Shriver, president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York, you have a ``massive reassertion of the rights of the individual, with little correlative attention to the obligations of the individual to the rest of the country.'' He says this brand of ``radical laissez faire-ism'' - the idea that ``the parts will look after themselves if we look after our own needs'' - leads to grief. He points to what he sees as the ``greed'' component of the stock market crash.
``We need more leaders who will help us to tend to our national needs, rather than telling us to tend to our own knitting,'' Dr. Shriver says.
There is an attitude at large in the Reagan administration that ``the more personal gain there is, the more help it is to the public,'' says Hendrik Hertzberg, senior associate at the press-politics center of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He goes further: ``Their ideology simply does not include a concept of public good.''
There's been a ``loud silence'' from Reagan on ethical questions, says Wertheimer - the attorney general's office, the National Security Council, the White House staff: ``He never talks about these issues as important; he never criticizes when these situations arise. He sends out signals that `anything goes.'''
In their 690-page report, the Iran-contra committees of Congress faulted Reagan for having ``created or at least tolerated an environment'' in which those who knew about the funds diversion to the contras thought they were carrying out Reagan's policies. The report also says Reagan has ``yet to condemn'' those who ``lied, shredded documents, and covered up their actions.'' The report also suggests that Reagan misled the special Tower Commission about his role in sending Hawk antiaircraft missiles to Iran via Israel in 1985. He has yet to reply to the committee's report in a substantive way.
Reagan remains a popular President, with a reserve of public affection and forgiveness some see as inexhaustible. Whether the ``bad ethics'' label sticks may well depend on the Soviets and the US Congress. The agreement Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev are to sign next week will - if ratified by the Senate - eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe. Reagan has an ``unparalleled'' opportunity to conclude a strategic forces reduction, a chemical weapons pact, and a nuclear test-ban treaty as well, says one scholar. And that could silence administration critics as effectively as a gag.
Some of the more than 100 Reagan administration aides under fire
The following is a partial list of Reagan administration officials against whom either formal or informal charges of misconduct have been leveled:
Edwin Meese III: US Attorney General Meese was cleared of financial wrongdoing by one independent counsel (formerly called a ``special prosecutor''); now he is the subject of another probe, this time for his ties to the Wedtech Corporation.
Robert McFarlane: the former national-security adviser is being investigated by independent counsel Lawrence Walsh for his role in the Iran-contra debacle.
John Poindexter: also under investigation for the Iran-contra affair. He was Reagan's national-security adviser after Mr. McFarlane resigned.
Michael Deaver: former deputy White House chief of staff, he has been indicted on charges that he committed perjury in an investigation about ethics violations in his lobbying activities.
Lyn Nofziger: also embroiled in the Wedtech Corporation investigation; he was a White House aide.
Raymond Donovan: resigned as secretary of labor amid charges that he had ties to organized crime. He was found not guilty in a New York trial.
Anne Burford: former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, she left after it was disclosed that she had allowed exceptions to environmental regulations to some industrial polluters.
Rita Lavelle: EPA assistant administrator for toxic wastes, she was convicted of lying to Congress.
Oliver North: former National Security Council aide; he is being investigated by independent counsel for his role in Iran-contra.
Robert Nimmo: resigned as head of the Veterans Administration after a report accused him of misusing government transportation.
James Beggs: former NASA administrator, indicted on charges that he defrauded government as private-sector business executive.
Peter Voss: Postal Service governor pleaded guilty to charges of accepting kickbacks and expense-account fraud.