Presidential appointees set moral tone

Allegations of impropriety now have touched a number of top-level presidential appointees. There has been no major scandal. But the recurring charges have prompted some veteran presidential watchers to say that Mr. Reagan should do more to improve the ethical climate.

Sen. William Proxmire (D) of Wisconsin, famous for the ''Golden Fleece'' award he gives to those in government he charges with extravagant spending or waste, has strong credentials as a monitor of government ethics.

At breakfast a reporter brought up the allegations of unethical conduct that have swirled around many recent presidents. Senator Proxmire was asked: ''If you were president, how would you go about improving the moral tone?''

''It's kind of a slippery concept to discuss,'' answered Proxmire. ''I think of it in terms of the kind of appointments the president makes.

''In the years I've been here - and I've been a senator for 25 years now - almost every president we've had has done a very bad job of making appointments to the cabinet and other top government posts.

''These are the most powerful positions in our country, and the presidents seem to be so offhand and careless about making appointments. And they seem to have one single criterion - and that criterion is loyalty to the president, rather than competency.''

How should presidents make appointments then?

Well, if they pick a man to be president of a university, usually a search committee is set up. Maybe it will take a year and be very thorough and they'll have maybe 15 or 20 candidates and even more - until they finally select the person they want.

But when a president picks a person to be in the cabinet or a top executive position, the selection process seems to be so casual. And very often he will pick someone who has just no background, no training, no experience. The classic case was Bert Lance.

Wasn't part of the problem with Jimmy Carter the fact that while he said he was going to select the best and brightest, he only knew the best and brightest in Georgia?

Right. And then he went on to pick someone (Bert Lance from Georgia) to be head of the Office of Management and Budget who had absolutely no experience in the federal government - none, not one day - and had no experience in handling a budget at that level.

But you don't have to pick out Carter as an example. This has been true of almost every president we have ever had. Even Lyndon Johnson, who knew government so thoroughly - I think his selections were weak.

Has the nature of the federal government changed over the years - making it easier for unethical conduct to occur?

If you look at the government over the last 10 years, we have had a terrific explosion of spending and a lack of any restraint in the size of our government and the burden on our government. We've centralized so much of our operations.

We had a federal system that was set up by the Founding Fathers that worked quite well. In the last 50 years we've moved to a concentration that does not. The power is terrific. I suppose it could be argued that it is remarkable that we haven't had more crooks than we've had under the circumstances.

But what can a president do, other than make better appointments, to see to it that the ethical climate around him is good?

Well, there should be as much disclosure of what the president does as possible.

Can one expect the president to be able to prevent the misconduct of those around him?

Of course. But the difficulty is that with the kind of aggressive press and the kind of rewards we have for an aggressive press, whatever mistakes the president makes are discussed, analyzed, and become much more vivid.

Then you think some mistakes are magnified?

Yes, there's a lot of that, sure. The job itself has become so colossal, so difficult.

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