How bad?

THE disclosure of rampant cheating and bribery in President Reagan's arms procurement program is bad, but let's keep it in proportion. It is not yet another Teapot Dome. Teapot Dome is a label for a lot of skulduggery during the administration of Warren Harding. The unraveling of it lasted over years. The ramifications spread widely through the American political fabric. It brought down two members of the Harding cabinet and was the reason the President took a trip to Alaska from which he never returned alive to Washington. He died in San Francisco on his way home, officially from bad food but most contemporaries thought from realization that his presidency was a disaster.

Mr. Harding's secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, went to jail for taking bribes from two oil interests, E.L. Doheny and Harry Sinclair, in collusion with the secretary of the Navy, Edwin M. Denby. Mr. Fall had taken $100,000 from Mr. Doheny and $300,000 from Mr. Sinclair. Sinclair also went to jail. Mr. Denby resigned.

Under the ``deal'' Doheny was to get the naval oil reservation at Elk Hill in California and Sinclair was to have Teapot Dome in Wyoming. Disclosure spoiled the deal. The government regained $6 million from the oil companies.

Meanwhile Jess Smith, secretary to Harding's attorney general, Harry M. Dougherty, committed suicide after it was discovered that he had received $7 million, which had been paid by bootleggers in bribes to one Gaston B. Means. Both Mr. Smith and Mr. Means had offices inside the Department of Justice from which Means had been selling ``medicinal'' liquor permits to bootleggers.

It came out that a ``Colonel'' Charles R. Forbes, a former United States Army deserter, had been appointed director of the Veterans Bureau and collected commissions on the building of Veterans Hospitals and on the sale of war surplus materials.

There was also scandal during the second administration of Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant. The President himself was entirely honorable, but corruption was widespread and entered even into his own office. His private secretary, Gen. Orville E. Babcock, was found to have colluded with a ``Whiskey Ring'' in St. Louis that succeeded in defrauding the government of millions in unpaid taxes.

Other unfortunate incidents during the second Grant term included a secretary of War who took kickbacks from traders on Indian Reservations (which were then under the War Department). It was testified that ``a million feet of lumber purchased by the Boston Navy Yard had simply disappeared.''

And of course, there was Watergate, during the second administration of Richard Nixon who then became the first president in US history to have to resign the office.

It is a nice question whether the Harding scandals were worse than the Grant scandals. Both were cases of corruption. The Nixon affair was different. There was little evidence of pocketing federal money for private gain although ``funds'' were collected for political use. That angle of the Watergate story was never fully pursued. We do not know the source of the funds which the President could dispense, or whether favors were granted in return for the funds. But mostly Watergate was a story of misuse of the police powers of the federal government for political advantage, not for private gain.

Currently we have a familiar type of corruption, contractors seeking an inside track to government contracts. It has happened in every war. It was especially bad during the Civil War. World War I, by contrast was waged without serious scandals, largely due to Harry Truman, who ran a watchdog committee in the Senate.

This new contract procurement scandal has already had one political result. It has blanketed out the story of questionable book publishing by Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright. It is manna for the Democrats and another minus for the Republicans as we move toward voting day in November.

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