Washington Takes a Look at Its 'Tough Town' Culture

`HERE, ruining people is considered sport."

These final words in a note by deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster, written before his death by apparent suicide, have propelled Washington into self-scrutiny.

By any rational measure, Mr. Foster had not been "ruined," by the news media or anyone else. Wall Street Journal editorials had launched a criticism targeting administration lawyers, including Foster. Otherwise, the media made little specific mention of him.

Still, on a larger scale, people are asking: Is this town too rough on public figures?

That people are talking about Foster's words seems proof that they conveyed an element of truth. Indeed, Washington has lost a level of civility that prevailed 30 or 35 years ago, say historians, theologians, and other longtime Washington hands.

"Since Vietnam and Watergate, there's been an erosion of respect for Washington and government figures," says Charles Peters, author of "How Washington Really Works." "Reporters can be desperately anxious to show how tough they can be."

And if you're Zoe Baird or Lani Guinier or any of the other Clinton appointees who were humiliated as your nomination ran aground, you're sure to agree.

It has been four years since House Speaker Jim Wright (D) of Texas stepped down amid allegations of impropriety over book royalties. But in an interview, Mr. Wright sounded as hurt as the day he left office.

"It is painful for those in government to have his or her honor impugned, particularly for one who is extremely conscientious," says Wright, speaking of a "thirst for scandal" in Washington and a "seeming eagerness to debunk and destroy another's character."

The press, of course, has a duty to investigate possible improprieties of public officials, he adds, but "the assumption generally seems to be that someone is guilty."

"I remember back in the '50s and '60s, the 11th commandment was, thou shalt not demagogue against thy colleagues," says Wright who was first elected to Congress in 1954. "If so, one was ostracized. Integrity was assumed, unless there was real evidence otherwise."

Historians point out that the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations and the first half of the Johnson administration were an unusually polite period. But attacks on public figures and press scrutiny of their private lives are as old as the republic.

"John Adams attempted to muzzle the press," says Rosemarie Zagarri, an associate professor of American history at Catholic University. "He literally threw newspaper editors in jail for printing even true things about the president."

America's early political leaders "really hated" the press attention to their personal lives and felt they didn't deserve it, she says.

What's different now, says Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess, is that "government simply does so much more" than it used to, and so Washington has become a much more important place.

"The decisions made here affect peoples' lives more intimately, and the standards of the press have changed, partly because of Vietnam, partly because of Watergate, partly because they were lied to and because they are prepared to say there is less of a distinction between public and private life," says Mr. Hess, who has lived here since the 1950s.

"There is some loss of civility, but I think that's true in society," he adds.

Hess also quarrels with the notion that Washington is tougher than other cities. "The people who are here care a lot about public policy [but] are under no more pressure than if they were trying to design next year's automobile model in Detroit or figure out what the next blockbuster will be in Hollywood."

The only difference here, he says, is the level of public scrutiny. Hess argues that, in fact, press scrutiny of public officials and nominees has performed a useful function. He recalls how, when he got to Washington, he could walk down a corridor of a Senate office building at noon "and probably run into some member who was sloshed." Now, he says, that's not likely to happen because of fear of the press.

Hess notes that 15 years ago, a manuscript was submitted to Brookings bemoaning the fact that presidential nominations were going through with little scrutiny. Now, of course, that's changed. "Look at what derails people. Do you really want a secretary of defense who was accused of having a serious drinking problem?" he says, referring to the late nominee John Tower.

The question is, what's fair scrutiny. Another new element in the Washington equation is the growing legion of special-interest groups that work day and night digging into the backgrounds of nominees. During campaigns, negative ads seek to ruin politicians by highlighting certain facts or spreading distortions. In those cases, the press can save someone by pointing out falsehoods.

But for many public figures, the Fourth Estate can be an object of fear.

"If you're coming to Washington, you'd better be ready to take some pretty sharp shots," says the Rev. James Connor, SJ, director of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. "It's the name of the game. Just like in football, you can't play without getting hit hard." But, he adds, "I also think there comes a time when the bounds of civility ... have been transgressed."

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