ALREADY, just weeks into the Bush administration, whiffs of scandal are hovering over Washington. Already there is talk of smoking guns, propriety, and appearances. Already there are anonymous tips and backstairs whispering. The reports - some with foundation, some mere allegations - of questionable conduct or conflicts of interest involving Secretary of Defense-designate John Tower, Secretary of Health and Human Services-designate Louis Sullivan, and White House counsel C.Boyden Gray are titillating; it's easy to acquire a taste for ad hominy and grit. And some of the issues in these cases are not trivial. They should be pursued.
All the same, it is disheartening that Washington's scandal-mongering machinery already is revving at full tilt.
Of course, we've become accustomed to it. The Reagan years had virtually a scandal-of-the-month. Some were real; others dissipated, leaving behind only blackened names and bruised careers.
The eager hunting for peccadillos carried over into the '88 presidential race. Besides the Gary Hart and Joseph Biden episodes, nearly every major candidate had some gossip attached to his name at one time or another.
Has moral vigilantism become a permanent feature of our politics? Are ethics lynching parties OK when directed at aspirants for high public office? Is relentless scrutiny the price they pay for the power and the glory?
Americans have a right to insist on high moral and ethical conduct by public officials, especially if such conduct impinges on their duties. The press - with whatever motives, and sometimes they aren't benign - has a constitutional obligation to be a public watchdog, as do committees of Congress and United States prosecutors.
Few conscientious citizens can want a return to the days when a one-of-the-boys press held back vital information about presidents' health and drunkenness of powerful officials.
Nor, however, is the public eager for witch hunts by salivating journalists and congressional aides, for an environment in which every human failing is grist for headlines and public cross-examinations. Not only do such excesses bring unnecessary harm to individuals and families; they also demean democracy and undercut confidence in our institutions.
The benefits of a free press are manifold, as the Framers perceived, and the press is rightly secure from censorship. But the public watchdogs must observe their own ethical restraints.
There will always be real wrongdoing by public officials, and it must be ferreted out. But the public is hurt, not helped, when scandal mongering becomes licentious, self-aggrandizing, or politically motivated.