No more Watergates, but . . .

SCENE: a presidential press conference shortly after Gerald Ford took office. A reporter: ``What are you going to do to see to it that there are no more Watergates? Do you plan to have a code of ethics for the executive branch?''

President Ford: ``The code of ethics that will be followed will be the example that I set. I will be as candid and as forthright as I possibly can. I will expect any individuals in my administration to be exactly the same. There will be no tightly controlled operation of the White House staff. I will make the decisions and take the blame for them or whatever benefit might be the case.''

``In that extraordinary exchange -- unthinkable at a presidential press conference in pre-Watergate days,'' Time magazine wrote at the time, ``Gerald Ford effectively summed up the homespun precepts that will guide his administration.''

Mr. Ford's words were directed at the healing of the nation. Historians today note that Ford accomplished his goal: He renewed public respect for the office of president. He made the government's executive branch work once again.

Ford did set an excellent ethical example, as he promised -- though press references still tend to cite his mixing up some words while in debate with opponent Jimmy Carter. How unfair. His job was one of restoration. He got the job done.

Since Ford left the presidency, there has been nothing like Watergate in Washington. But the ethical climate has not held up to the standard he set at that press conference. Jimmy Carter's ethics were of the highest -- but he clung too long to Bert Lance, whose questionable activities in his private banking life rubbed off onto Carter.

And now President Reagan's own ethical conduct isn't under question. Indeed, he is well isolated from questions being raised from time to time about people in his administration. But the charges leveled against Reagan's former key aide, Michael Deaver -- that he has used influence in inappropriate and even illegal ways -- are now being described, by some critics, as reflective of an administration attitude.

``We seem,'' says Common Cause head Fred Wertheimer, ``to be living in an attitude of `Let's try to get away with whatever we can -- let's stretch it to the outer limits.' And this stems from the Reagan administration's attitude that these kinds of questions don't matter. You cannot find the President or the administration articulating any kinds of concerns or standards in this area of ethics.''

Mr. Wertheimer says the administration isn't the ``only player'' in what he calls ``a steady deterioration'' in ethical conduct in Washington ``in the last four or five years.'' He points at Congress, too.

``In the past,'' Wertheimer said to reporters the other morning over breakfast, ``influence peddlers used to try to really keep their activities quiet and hidden, because that was the central part of getting your work done. And the reason was that once your influence peddling became a public event, you couldn't do it anymore, because it was considered wrong.'' He paused, then continued:

``Now up until the Deaver matter exploded, people were going out of their way to be blatantly public about what they were doing -- to the point where Mr. Deaver winds up on the cover of Time magazine with his competitors greatly disappointed because they only got inside pictures.''

Congress's deep involvement in peddling access to high officials for big money is also getting wide attention. Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina has introduced a bill that would bar all departing federal employees, including congressmen and their staffs -- from lobbying the government in any capacity for one year and for working for a foreign government for two years. Will the bill pass? And don't Democrats see the irony in prosecuting former Reagan aides for ``unethical conduct'' that former members of Congress are given the freedom to practice?

Nearly 12 years have passed since I asked the question of President Ford at that press conference about how he would deal with problems involving ethics. Nothing like Watergate -- when it was a President's own involvement that raised the level of the scandal to such enormous proportions -- has since occurred. But the ethical climate in Washington has indeed deteriorated.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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