A President above suspicion

A good many charges of unethical conduct in the administration have been lapping round the edges of the President. But thus far he has escaped untouched, remaining, to use Eisenhower's phrase, ''as clean as a hound's tooth.''

Eisenhower was referring to his chief of staff, Sherman Adams, who soon was to step down in the face of criticism for accepting a vicuna coat from an industrialist asking for White House favors.

Eisenhower, too, was always able to remain detached from scandal, even when it reached as far as his right-hand man. In the eyes of the public the popular Ike could do no wrong. More important, of course, there was never a hint that Eisenhower himself was involved in unethical conduct.

But the Watergate scandal has made it more difficult for honorable, highly principled presidents to remain apart and unseared by the impropriety or wrongdoing of those around them.

Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon and encountered all kinds of questions about some ''deal'' he might have made in order to get Nixon's resignation and elevate himself to the presidency. It was bunkum. Ford, as he explained, merely wanted to get Watergate out of the way so that he could focus on urgent priorities, both at home and abroad.

Recently reporters heard Richard Cheney, Ford's chief of staff, make this comment in comparing Reagan's detachment from ethical questions to Ford's experience:

''I'm not sure I can explain it. Coming off the Watergate experience there was a high degree of suspicion about everything Ford did.

''But with Reagan it's different. I think to some extent it is because he is a warm, friendly, likable guy. And people perceive that.

''And ofttimes people around him end up catching the flak for what he may ultimately be responsible for. I don't mean that in an ethical sense - but in a political sense. No one has accused Reagan of doing anything that remotely touches on the unethical. There have been no allegations along that line.''

President Carter was sucked into the intense heat generated by Bert Lance's alleged banking improprieties. Part of this was because Carter and Lance were such close friends. They had been political cohorts for years.

Lance, too, had become one of President Carter's chief advisers. Some critics said that, had Carter quickly rid himself of Lance, he would have escaped the fallout from the Lance affair.

Part of the problem was the particularly high moral standards which Carter had set up for himself - and which he underscored so strongly during his campaign. Carter was held to a higher ethical posture than other presidents simply because he had in effect asked the voters to do precisely that.

Reagan's high ground seems to be based on a public perception that he is a man of principle. A recent national poll bears this out. And even one of the President's harshest critics, columnist Mary McGrory, gave Reagan points for character when she said of him in a TV interview the other day: ''There is no self-pity. He's not a whiner.'' And she added: ''There is no self-righteousness.''

Is the Watergate ethic receding? Probably not. Public suspicion of its servants in government remains high. But this President, with his ability to retain public trust, is so far keeping this suspicion away from his door.

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