While Watergate has pretty much faded from the memory of most Americans, its impact remains in Washington. The media's "Watergate mentality" was on display once again as much of the media here sprang eagerly into action in pursuit of CIA chief William Casey and his appointee Max Hugel.
Hugel was indeed a dreadful appointment, engineered almost entirely by Casey. And he stepped down from his CIA spymaster role quickly once he was accused of some dubious business operations. Then came allegations about Casey's own financial dealings.
For a few days reporters at the White House were saying among themselves that Casey was in big trouble and would have to go. Their verdict was that the CIa director could not stay on after the embarrassment he had caused the President over hugel and the questions being raised about the propriety of his past conduct.
The storm seemed to abate, but then Sen. Barry Goldwater, chairman of the Senate intelligence Committee, asserted that Casey should step down. Some other members of Congress are echoing this view while there are public officials, including the President, rallying to Casey's side.
The press is in full cry again, close on Casey's heels. Some reporters seem to be sniffing a kill. their prosecuting attorney type of questions at White House briefings, first about Hugel and now about Casey, are not up to the Watergate- period level, but investigative reporters clearly are on the prowl, hoping to find information that would bear decisively on the Casey appointment.
This city is churning with a sort of excitement -- a kind of emotional anticipation -- as Casey fights to save his job.
This media "Watergate mentality" stems in large part from those editors, reporters, and public officials who do have lofty motives. To say otherwise would be cynical -- and untrue. For the most part they do want to improve the ethical climate in government. But it is also fair to say that this mentality, as evidenced in the press, stems, too, from those editors and reporters who, for competitive, professional, and personal reasons, are constantly working to come up with another big story of Watergate proportions.
Thus members of the media here dig hard to uncover information about government wrongdoing. They leap into action the moment it appears that a high government official may have committed a breach of ethics -- working vigorously to get at all the facts involved and, perhaps, dredge up more. Their motives aren't entirely to bring about cleaner government. It would be naive to say so. no doubt visions of page-one stories and possible prizes sometimes dance before their eyes.
On Capitol hill, too, the charges against Hugel and Casey have stirred up a great deal of interest. Watergate has made members of Congress more vigilant about ethical misconduct among their colleagues and government officials.
Senator Goldwater's intelligence committee is looking into the charges against Casey and it seems to be in the mood to call for Casey's resignation if the CIA director isn't able to explain or disprove some of the allegations now being made against him.
Congress, since Watergate, has intensified its crutiny of the conduct of government officials in general and, particularly, of itself. It is fully aware that the public has less than full trust in its ethics, and it seems to be trying to raise its ethical standards and to do a better job of policing itself.
But members of Congress are not oblivious to the TV exposure that came to senators and congressmen involved in Watergate-related hearings and the like. So self-interest moves them, too, when they quickly step in to look at Bert Lance's banking practices or, as of now, to probe into Casey's past.
On balance, the media's "Watergate mentality" is a positive thing. Washington today is more alert to ridding itself of ethical misconduct. In this sense, the scandal of the Nixon years appears to have had a good effect.
But the public should be aware that a self-serving element is sometimes present as the press and public officials go after malfeasance in governme nt.