JOHN TOWER's troubles on Capitol Hill raise the question: Are higher moral standards now in vogue in the United States? Are Americans demanding that public officials lead purer private lives? The short answer appears to be, ``No, not necessarily.'' Neil Upmeyer, an analyst with the Gallup Organization, says, ``There is no moral tidal wave'' sweeping through the country.
Yet subtle changes are taking place. Public expectations about government officials, as well as private citizens, are being modified. And the long-term effects could be felt in American politics, in the workplace, and in the home.
The unexpectedly harsh criticism of Secretary of Defense-designate Tower erupted in the US Senate, where heavy drinking long has been the norm. While some Republicans suggest that the criticism from Democrats was the height of hypocrisy, Tower nevertheless felt the sting.
Tower isn't the only one to endure the public lash, however. During the past election, former Sen. Gary Hart, a married man, was excoriated in the press for his relationship with a Miami model. It was a dalliance that might have once been overlooked.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., another presidential candidate, was flayed for plagiarizing the speech of a British politician, an incident that might have been laughed off in an earlier time.
Several former Reagan officials have been criticized, and sometimes legally charged with, lying to Congress, influence-peddling, and other practices that might once have been passed over. Political analyst G. Donald Ferree says there is nothing in polling data to indicate that Americans are on a righteous crusade. Rather, public attitudes toward certain subjects, like drinking, smoking, and extramarital affairs have evolved over the past 20 years.
Take the case of Senator Hart, for example. The public's concern over his relationship with Donna Rice didn't involve morality as much as it raised questions about his judgment, Mr. Ferree suggests.
Likewise, the outcry over Tower's fondness for liquor in the 1970s raised questions about his ability to hold a post that required making decisions about nuclear arms. What's important is ``the extent to which private behavior casts doubt on a person's ability to hold a responsible position,'' Ferree says.
In Hart's case, doubts were raised about ``his judgment, his character, and his trustworthiness,'' he adds.
From the beginning of the Republic, Americans have pounced on politicians over ``moral'' issues, so the experiences of Tower, Hart, and others are nothing new. The public has criticized drunkenness (Ulysses S. Grant), alleged illicit sex (Grover Cleveland), and violations of the public trust (Richard M. Nixon).
One thing that is new is the speed with which the media air dirty laundry, wherever it is found. But that sort of reporting may reflect the public's fondness for titillation as much as morality, experts say. Indeed, there is strong evidence that the public ethos is slipping in many areas of behavior.
Standards of morality are much different than those of 50 years ago. Cases of adultery, pre-marital sex, illegitimate birth, murder, and illegal drug use are increasing, sometimes sharply.
Mr. Upmeyer says that in poll after poll, Americans give lip-service to their opposition to excessive drinking, illicit sex, and corruption in government. For example, in a new Gallup Poll, 60 percent of those surveyed said that a ``strict moral code'' is important to them, up from just 47 percent eight years ago.
But such surveys are no reflection of rising moral indignation, Upmeyer says. While religion is clearly the underlying factor that influences moral issues, he explains, there are no data showing that Americans are becoming more serious about religious or moral beliefs.
KARLYN KEENE, managing editor of Public Opinion magazine, suggests that a factor which may have been important in the Tower case was the growing power of conservatives. It was a new-right activist, Paul Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation, who brought some of the concerns about Tower to public notice.
And there is growing discomfort among some right wing activists about Tower, even though his defense policies might mirror their own.
Suzanne Garment, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is writing a book about the politics of scandal in post-Watergate Washington.
Dr. Garment agrees that the political right has growing influence in Washington.
But she also suggests something else is afoot in Washington that helped snare Tower, Hart, and others. She calls it ``the puritanization of the political class.''
This puritanization has many sources - and is broader than just the conservatives.
Some of its moral energy comes from the Vietnam experience, the women's movement, and environmentalism. Some comes from the emphasis on health, the body, and exercise.
Mr. Ferree, associate director of the Institute for Social Inquiry at the University of Connecticut, says this changed sentiment of society can be seen in views about drinking, smoking, and women.
At one time, drunkenness and drunk driving were treated as a joke. Smoking was a macho thing, and most men did it. Women were not seen as equals.
Today, people who drink excessively, womanize (treat women as sex objects), and otherwise act without discretion don't fit with this new sentiment of a more balanced lifestyle.
Thus, Tower, Hart, and others seem a throwback to earlier times when standards were different. Society has changed, but some politicians have failed to keep up - much to their chagrin.