ALL THAT TALK we heard a few months ago during the heat of the campaign about the Reagan Administration's "sleaze factor" has dissipated in second-term euphoria. But events of the past week suggest that the odor of sleeze still lingers on in the White House corridors, and even partisan Republican noses should be picking up the scent.
The occasion for this finger-pointing is the wholesale personnel shuffle in the White House in the past week. With James Baker, the chief of staff, and Donald Regan, the Treasury Secretary, swapping places, and Ed Meese headed for Justice and Mike Deaver out of the Administration, all bets are off on the ideological chemistry of the second Reagan term. But what cries out, largely unsuccessfully, for comment is the new resonance these moves give to the unpleasant principle expressed by too many members of the Administration--that it is okay to use public office for personal gain.
Deaver and Meese are the immediate cases in point. Nothing the two have done has proven to be illegal, but both men have engaged in practices that, at the very least, betray a lack sensitivity to the ethical requirements of high office. One is hard-pressed to give the two the benefit of the doubt given the long list of sleeze that preceeds them: Hugel, Reed, Donovan, Wick, Allen...
It was an Ironic twist of fate that Deaver announced his resignation as the White House's deputy chief of staff on the very day a Wall Street Journal article detailed how his financial picture, which he much lamented a few years back, has since "brightened considerably." The article noted somewhat whimsically that Deaver's wife Carolyn had become an "overnight success" in the public relations field despite no previous experience, gaining clients like the Republican National Committee. A friend of Deaver's, it was also reported, had arranged for Deaver to make a $10,000 profit on a money-losing real estate transaction.
All of this would probably raise nary an eyebrow were it not for the fact that it follows a wholly unremarked-upon--except through the column of William Safire--incident involving Deaver early on in the Administration. Deaver, it seems, contracted with a book publisher to attach his name to a diet book--a move that could eventually net him several hundred thousand dollars. Thus Deaver became, as Safire pointed out, the first White House official ever to exploit "his public position for substantial commercial gain while still in office."
Nevertheless, Deaver has said he is leaving public office because he cannot live comfortably on his $72,000 White House stipend.
But at least Deaver is now, for whatever reasons, leaving the Administration. Ed Meese has shown a similar disregard for the standards of high government service and now he is to be rewarded with the office that is supposed to most symbolize those standards of fair-play and honor--the Attorney Generalship.
A special prosecutor has found "no basis" for indicting Meese for alleged financial irregularities. Instead he refused Meese's request to throw out the charges of "moral turpitude" made against him, stressing that there still could be evidence of criminal conduct--just not enough right now to make an indictment.
THE POINT is, though: indictibility is one thing, fitness for high office is quite another. It is disconcerting that no one except Archibald Cox '34 seems the slightest bit concerned with the fact that five Californians who had helped Meese out financially also happened to end up with federal government jobs. Or that Meese's explanation for why this happened is littered with contradictions.
Cox recently noted, "The office of Attorney General requires a person who can symbolize' the highest standards of honor, integrity, and freedom from favoritism or other self-interest in the performance of public office." Ed Meese is no such person, and the fact that those who point this out are subjected to criticism as partisans is a sad indicator of the declining standards to which our public officials are increasingly held.