Choosing between loyalty and legality - an ethical dilemma

The Iran-contra hearings stand in recess. But the case of Fawn Hall remains an object lesson in what can best be called ethical dualism. On the one hand is the evidence of Miss Hall's work as secretary to Col. Oliver North. She described him as a ``every secretary's dream of a boss'' - considerate, thoughtful, patient, hardworking, easygoing. She herself, it seems, may well have been a dream of a secretary. For openers, she appears to have been professionally competent - skillful, articulate, capable of keeping secrets, and committed to protecting her boss's project. But she was more. To the extent that she understood the policy underlying his work, she agreed with it. She was apparently a solid team player on strategy and diligent in executing tactics. Finally, she was fiercely loyal. ``I admire Lieutenant Colonel North,'' she told the Congressional committee, ``for his professional integrity and beliefs, his personal commitment to this country and his ability to be a friend, when one is needed.'' On the other hand is the evidence of Hall's complicity in a skein of deceit. The line and tone of the questioning from the committee suggested that she should have known better than to help shred top-secret documents. She should have sensed the illegality of smuggling papers out of the White House. She should have recognized that she was guilty of obstructing justice. She should have put the law of the land above her loyalties.

Which set of values should she have followed? The awkward fact is that each has a strong claim to ethical correctness. What employer would not want a work force with Hall's sense of commitment? Yet what nation can tolerate citizens who knowingly interfere with the processes of judicial inquiry? Which should count more: her almost military devotion to an individual, or what should have been her respect for a broad-ranging investigation into the nation's foreign policy operation?

These are not simple questions. They have about them an almost Shakespearean dimension: This is the stuff of tragedy, out of which a dramatist might shape an anguished king-or-country dilemma that tests the moral metal. After all, we try to teach both sets of values to our children: The Boy Scout law, for instance, requires scouts to be ``loyal'' while at the same time telling them to be obedient to ``the laws of [the] community and country.''

The dilemma, of course, arises when those two sets of ethics conflict. And conflict they did in suite 302 of the White House. When the crunch came, Hall chose loyalty. It would appear that she chose wrong. But she alone cannot be asked to shoulder the blame. In an important way, she was simply doing what the American political process is increasingly asking its citizens to do.

How so? Well, consider a fascinating pair of comments by committee chairman Lee H. Hamilton. In an op-ed piece in The Christian Science Monitor last week, he argued that, in today's political process, voters are looking for personal morality in their candidates. ``To many [voters],'' he wrote, ``an individual's character is much more important than his or her specific positions on policy issues....If the public possesses confidence in the sound judgment and integrity of its leaders, the effective operation of our democratic system is enhanced.''

That sounds unexceptional. Yet that's exactly what citizen Fawn Hall did. Rather than probing and analyzing the ``specific positions'' of her employer, she put her confidence in ``an individual's character.'' Yet Representative Hamilton, summarizing the hearings last week, painted the result as ``a depressing story'' of ``not telling the truth,'' a story of ``remarkable confusion in the processes of government.''

Hamilton, of course, is not to blame for that confusion. Yet he articulates a position that seems affected by it. Which set of ethics do he and his fellow congressmen want? They can't have it both ways. Should voters focus on personalities - an easy thing to do in an age of television images and 300-word news stories? Or should they grapple with ideas, issues, and policies? To say it more baldly: Can politicians applaud witnesses for their disloyalty, while at the same time encouraging the citizenry to place its faith in personalities?

As is so often the case in matters of ethics, the answer lies in a sense of balance - of doing that which is closest to the right thing in difficult circumstances. Perhaps, in the current recess, it will dawn upon both witnesses and questioners that the struggle here is less between right and wrong than between two sets of values.

A Monday column

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