IN this election year most political rhetoric comes with a slippery veneer. Behind the slick TV ads attempting to retool images of candidates from Virginia to California lurks a fundamental American question: where oh where are ethics?
Personal allegations against President Clinton and charges down the political pecking order through a string of indicted congressmen, plus the recent felony conviction of former US Treasury Secretary Catalina Villalpando from the Bush administration, bring questions of moral character to the center of American politics.
Political corruption and personal scandal have always been part of the nation's politics. But recent polls show public trust of politicians, particularly the federal government, has slipped to all-time lows.
In a Newsweek poll taken in June, three-quarters of Americans believe the US is in a moral and spiritual decline. A recent Gallup Poll said only 19 percent of Americans trust the government to do what is right at least most of the time. In 1964 the figure was 76 percent.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll published Friday recorded that trust in Mr. Clinton is down even though his approval ratings have begun to recover. Of all those surveyed, only 26 percent gave the president good marks for ethical and moral values, down from 43 percent a year ago.
``The textbook definition of moral character is the ability to discern good from bad, and act upon that recognition,'' says Peter deLeon, a professor of public policy at the University of Colorado in Denver, and author of the book, ``Thinking About Political Corruption.''
``But what this means to different people is the stickler,'' he says. ``In the days when America was simpler, we could all work out the definition. But now there are so many beliefs that a definition can be a semantic trap.''
Some political analysts point to this year's Senate race in Virginia as more than a classic example of individual character inhibited by political ambition and questionable morality.
``People say they lie for the greater good, such as [Republican candidate] Oliver North has done in campaigning in Virginia and defending his role in the [Iran-Contra affair],'' says Michael Johnston, a political scientist at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. ``North also says, `Don't believe anyone who accuses me.'''
Mr. Johnston also notes the case of Democrat Charles Robb in the Virginia race. ``He is trying to reinterpret events by applying the did-not-inhale defense of sex,'' he says, referring to Senator Robb's version of an encounter with a beauty queen in a motel room for only a massage.
But the public perception of lack of character in politicians may spring from another aspect of political life today: that American politics, because of the intense attention to corruption, is as honest as it has ever been. Since 1978 there have been 14 investigations of high government officials in Washington. D.C., all launched by independent counsels appointed by presidents.
``I think as a nation we are much more moralistic these days,'' says Johnston. ``We have vast amounts of information available to us. So there is more to judge upon, more mud to sling around. But I don't think people make distinctions between [US Housing and Urban Development Secretary] Cisneros's case, and [Congressman] Dan Rostenkowski's case. What's eating at people is [they think] that something is morally wrong at the core of the state.''
Part of the problem, according to some critics, is too little media coverage of substantial issues, too much of scandal. ``The role of the press is to educate the public about what is happening,'' says Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C. ``But I think too much has slid by because of the coziness of the Washington press corps with those they cover.''
Compared with many other countries, where official corruption and scandal can be endemic, sudden political transitions and disclosures of corruption in the US, such as Watergate, shake the government foundations, but have never toppled the government's ability to function.
``If you look at the history of corruption in American democracy since at least the Jacksonian period,'' says Mr. deLeon, ``things have gotten unquestionably better. Now, people increasingly receive the message that corruption, even minor peccadillos, will not be tolerated. Vigilance by the press and watchdog agencies make corruption less of a worry, but over-vigilance can make people gun-shy to do anything.''
According to deLeon, who has studied the causes of political corruption in the US, corruptors think they are exempt or are acting from a sense of greater patriotism. ``It is a consistent theme,'' he says. ``All of these people were reluctant to deal in any sort of public forum, like Oliver North, because they felt if what they were doing was done openly, it would be blocked.''
In the November election, many incumbents in Congress may be turned out of office with the public expectation that new lawmakers will break the gridlock and legislate reforms in the way Congress operates.
``The current problem with Congress,'' says deLeon, ``is this constant drive to be revalidated by the voters, to be reelected as opposed to [solving] problems. Outrageous sums of money are being spent to get elected, and this leads to the frustration you hear that the government is getting away from us.''