PERHAPS not since the tragic era of the robber barons a century ago has the usavory aroma of political corruption been so pervasive throughout Washington. Then senators were elected by state legislatures, and the ``malefactors of great wealth,'' as Theodore Roosevelt later called them - the oil trusts, the railroads, the great financial houses - assured themselves of friends in Washington by simply buying legislatures. Now corporate political-action committees are on the way to buying senators and members of the House directly. As Roosevelt further said, ``...greed and arrogance ... and the corruption in business and politics, have tended to produce a very unhealthy condition....''
Two of President Reagan's closest advisers, Michael Deaver and Lyn Nofziger, stand convicted. A former national security adviser, Robert McFarlane, has pleaded guilty. Another, former Rear Adm. John Poindexter, has been indicted, along with his assistant Lt. Col. Oliver North and former Air Force Gen. Richard Secord. The attorney general has resigned under a cloud. Not so long ago another attorney general served time in prison. A member of Congress is convicted of extortion, among other things. Others, including the Speaker of the House, are under investigation.
The list could go on. Cheating is the most bipartisan activity in this otherwise highly politicized capital; it permeates the Congress as well as the executive branch. Even federal judges have been impeached. Nor is it limited to government. Stock trading scandals follow each other with dreary regularity on Wall Street.
This sleaze did not start with the Reagan administration, nor will it end with the Reagan administration. But administration policies and attitudes have contributed to it.
The administration's mindless insistence on ever-growing defense budgets has so skewed and distorted the economy that many communities are dependent on defense spending for their economic well-being. From an economic point of view, there is something fundamentally wrong with a boom fueled this way.
But there is even worse mischief in it. When communities prosper from defense contracts, members of Congress from those districts have a powerful incentive to keep the contracts coming, and never mind whether the uniformed services really want the products being made. The Defense Department encourages this sort of congressional activity by publishing a booklet that helpfully breaks down defense operations by congressional district.
The Pentagon and White House complain mightily when Congress tries to assert itself with respect to war powers and the deployment of troops in combat. But little is heard when Congress insists the services buy equipment they do not want just because the equipment is made in an influential member's district.
Defense contractors encourage Congress to do this, and sometimes the encouragement is strong enough to look like a thinly disguised bribe. A member of the Armed Services or Appropriations Committee is paid $2,000 to visit a plant making something the Air Force doesn't want. He is paid more for making a speech. There is perhaps as big a procurement scandal on Capitol Hill as there is in the Pentagon.
The Reagan administration did not intend for its defense buildup to go askew this way; but given the amounts of money involved and the varieties of equipment, the problem should have been predictable. Indeed, President Eisenhower, who was wisest in the ways of the Pentagon and defense industry, did predict it - and long before Ronald Reagan became a political force.
As Reagan policies inadvertently but inevitably brought this situation about, Reagan attitudes have made it worse. Not since at least the days of Warren Harding has an administration been so blind to the difference between right and wrong.
The mind-set exhibited in these examples inevitably tarnishes foreign policy. In this view, the only thing wrong with mining the harbors of Nicaragua, a country with which we were at peace, was that we got caught. When Nicaragua tried to avail itself of the remedies of international law, which we had plainly violated, we said we no longer recognized the World Court.
The President thinks invading Grenada and bombing Libya are examples of America's ``standing tall.'' In fact, they are America's acting like the neighborhood bully.
The saddest commentary on the Reagan administration is that it is leaving a record of bragging about what it should have apologized for, of being proud of what it should have been ashamed of.
Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.