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Purification, Not `Mindless Cannibalism'

PERSPECTIVES

By RUSHWORTH M. KIDDER / June 12, 1989



`MINDLESS cannibalism.'' It was a catchy phrase, calculated to win the hearts of headline writers everywhere. But was it, now that the dust has settled over the Jim Wright affair, a fair description of the process that slowly and inexorably shook the Speaker of the House from his perch? At first blush, that phrase from Mr. Wright's resignation speech seems plausible enough. After all, who could deny his assertion that ``it is grievously hurtful to our society when vilification becomes an accepted form of political debate, when negative campaigning becomes a full-time occupation, when members of each party become self-appointed vigilantes carrying out personal vendettas against members of the other party''?

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Those things are hurtful indeed, and Wright's words draw a useful line in the sand. They remind us that the pursuit of ethics is subject to perversion. They help us remember that the moral concerns of the upright, when they cross the line into the spiteful indignations of the self-righteous, have all too often produced a Spanish Inquisition or a Salem witch hunt.

But were the duly elected members of the House Ethics Committee ``self-appointed vigilantes''? Was it ``vilification'' to seek answers to questions of influence peddling? Is it ``negative campaigning'' to so raise the moral price of House membership that more than one of its members find they can't meet the payments and retire? Is this the sort of ``mindless cannibalism'' that will feed upon and ultimately destroy Congress?

On the contrary, what's now going on in Congress is extraordinarily healthy. Wright simply got his metaphor wrong. If he wanted to talk about destruction, the better image was one of purification - by fire, perhaps, burning up what's volatile, or by a cleansing flood that sweeps away what's loose. There is no human institution on earth that doesn't need periodic efforts of purification. And for an institution like Congress - located at the crossroads of wealth, fame, and power, where the necessity for compromise wars with the demand for integrity - the need for purification is constant.

Such purification ensures the continuity of any institution, though the result can be bitter for those who, like Wright, fail to grasp its meaning. That failure shows up in the language.

For Wright to crank the metaphor to the extreme of ``mindless cannibalism'' suggests that he saw nothing wrong with his actions. It implies that personalities, not ideas, occupied his thought. It suggests that he avoided major-league questions of truth, probity, and candor - playing instead the sand-lot game of who did what to whom.

That's not what ethics is about. It doesn't depend on what other people do. Nor does it rise or fall according to popular fashion - as though the sleazy could survive simply by keeping their heads down until the latest storm of public attention blows over. It's about one's own character. And ``character,'' as a colleague of mine recalls a teacher telling him years ago, ``is what you are at night.''

What is Congress at night - in the dark recesses of human behavior where nobody's watching? What can help it be better? Part of the answer may lie in such practical issues as higher pay, stricter accounting practices, and clear ethics rules. But the real answer lies in the purifying process that lets character stand while rinsing away moral turpitude. That's not cannibalism. That's survival.