Suzanne Garment

The Politics of Scandal

VTR Date: April 29, 1991

Guest: Garment, Suzanne


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Suzanne Garment
Title: “The Politics of Scandal”
VTR: 4/29/91

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And when I introduced today’s guest to you five years ago, she and I had just participated in Liberty Conference, the quite unique – and, I would like to think, rather successful — effort to add (as we said at the time) “cerebration to celebration” in Americans’ marking of the Statue of Liberty’s Centennial.

Suzanne Garment was then Associate Editor of the Editorial Page of The Wall Street Journal. Now a resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, she has just written an intriguing study of scandal in contemporary American politics.

So I would like first to ask Ms. Garment just how she accounts for her observation that over the past generation – since Watergate – there surely has been an explosive increase in scandal, but not really any chilling increase in corruption. How do we have the one, without the other?

Garment: Well, this is an observation with a history. When I was in Washington, writing for The Wall Street Journal I had a column that was intended to be about policy issues and about local color. What I found was that no one in Washington involved in government seemed to be interested in anything except scandal … who was in scandal trouble, who wasn’t in scandal trouble, who was trying to get someone else in scandal trouble, who was avoiding colleagues in scandal trouble. I finally started making files they stand at 350 now, probably nearer to 400 because, because I stopped counting and they all involve public charges of wrong-doing against public officials of some rank, since Watergate. I looked through, I looked through all the past data on this that I could and there’s not that much of it, but I felt safe in coming to the conclusion that there’s never been anything like this. The Federal government from all that we know is probably cleaner than it was 25 years ago, and yet the number of scandals has risen by orders of magnitude, and you just can’t explain the rise in scandal by pointing to any rise in corruption.

Heffner: Then do we have to point, instead, to journalists who keep those files 200, 300, counting to 400? Seriously.

Garment: Well, journalists are always a terrific target. But perhaps the change has been more general than that. I think it began as early as the sixties with the Kennedy assassination, which has been the source of a lot of changes in American politics. But this is, this is another off-shoot of it and the Kennedy assassination gave members of the elite a sense that the wishes of the democracy which they thought Kennedy represented could be undone by conspiracy, perhaps, involving a lone gunman or two, or three. Shortly after, shortly after the assassination came the war and the anti war movement brought a similar political stance to its opposition to the Vietnam involvement. During the war you started hearing people talking not just about mistakes that the government was making, but about the fundamental illegitimatacy and immorality of the national government. That mistrust began to have effects … long before Watergate … at the beginning of the 1970’s, for instance, you saw federal prosecutors starting to stretch federal statutes as far as they could in order to reach public corruption cases that the federal laws had never been thought to extend to in the past. And when Watergate came, all of this mistrust was institutionalized, and we’ve had a spate of new legislation which has made more conduct criminal. We’ve had an increase in hostile reporting by the press, of course. We’ve had changes in standards, even apart from legal changes, and we’ve had huge changes in disclosure requirements. So the public officials are now, are now forced to give journalists more information than ever before about their financial activities. A parallel movement has taken place when it comes to sex scandals. During the Kennedy era as is now known, there was conduct that never would have been passed over by journalists today, but during the late sixties also, attitudes began changing. Part of it was the moralism of the anti-war movement, part of it was the rise of the Women’s movement, which had very little tolerance for the sorts of activities that went on unreported in the sixties.

Heffner: But you know, there, there’s something strange about that. I was intrigued by it in your book … this explanation, but I thought that with feminism and with the radical rebellions of the Vietnam period there came a loosening of traditional moral standards. If so, how do you account for the increase in the “scandals” of, of recent years?

Garment: It’s interesting … there was a moment when the anti-war moralism co-existed with a great tolerance in sexual matters.

Heffner: Yes.

Garment: “Make love, not war”. But that moment was really quite brief because soon afterwards some writers in the women’s movement began describing sex as not a kind of Hefner-ite fun between two or more consenting adults. But…

Heffner: Hugh Hefner, please, not Richard Heffner.

Garment: … but … oh…

Heffner: Alright … please, please.

Garment: …I would never have … I’m sorry. (Laughter) Yes. Hugh Hefner…

Heffner: Okay.

Garment: .. and the bunnies.

Heffner: Right.

Garment: They, they began talking about sex as, as an arena of oppression. And the new slogan became, “the personal is political”. And by that logic, the private lives of public figures became fair game for reporting.

Heffner: You want to make this, I gather, not almost exclusively a matter of what reporters consider to be fair game, but what was happening to the national psyche on other levels. And, of course, I have to ask you why? Why not stop at the level of the peculiar, mordant concern, curiosity, exploitativeness of your fellow scribblers and the electronic scribblers?

Garment: Well, partly because I’ve been a scribbler and am therefore soft on the press. Also because, because I’ve been there and have seen something of the extent to which journalists are manipulated by people with their own agendas. There are prosecutors, there are investigators, there are Congressional staffers … there are a lot of people in the system now with a stake in an increased number of scandals. And that’s why it’s hard for me to see the press as the only institution that’s, that’s been touched by the change.

Heffner: But isn’t it the press that makes it all possible? Isn’t it the press that makes it possible for the prosecutor, as you suggest, to feed information about this public official or that public official to make a, to make what might have been considered a minor corruption into a major scandal.

Garment: Without the press none of this could become widely known. It’s true. The press is one of the great gatekeepers in that sense. I think that journalists were affected in the same way that others were affected by the Vietnam War and Watergate. Investigative journalism became the most respected kind of journalism that a young person coming out of journalism school could do.

Heffner: Respected or successful?

Garment: Respected among a good number of young people looking at the journalistic trade. It a … that is, that’s a crucial distinction

Heffner: Indeed.

Garment: … and it’s one that was not made very often. When, when Woodward and Bernstein achieved their fame and made their money, there weren’t very many people around saying, “well, we, we don really … we don really respect them and we don’t really approve of them”. There were many people who didn’t respect or approve of them, but such people mainly kept quiet. All that kids could see was the chorus of approval.

Heffner: Well, you know, I was, I was reading this particular chapter that begins Garment’s chapter that begins … “the scandals that rode like a wave over our political shores after the mid-1970’s were not propelled only by greed and overweening ambition, real or alleged, there was also a fair amount of lust involved”. Now how do you account for the focus on lust. Again, journalists…. money was … that you were stealing before was enough, is it just that there wasn’t so much looting of the public treasury?

Garment: With, with the sex scandals, I think that the general changes that accompanied the women’s movement were probably the most important factor. There were changes taking place on the Right as well, of course. There were Christian fundamentalists and evangelists that were becoming much more active in politics and they were having their effect. But, but the Right had traditionally had a very straight- laced view of politicians and what they should be allowed in their private lives. The novelty was this congruence of views between the Right and the Left.

Heffner: Well, you say…

Garment: That I think was what was behind … you know that sort of scandal.

Heffner: Even more interesting it seemed to me as I read this fascinating book, I mean chapter after chapter appeals to my prurient

Garment: Prurient interests.

Heffner: … alright … and I, I should blush a little when I say it, but it’s true. Chapter after chapter indicates that Right and Left came together not just in pointing the finger at scandal, particularly in the area, as you say, of lust, but in terms of being part and parcel of the scandals themselves.

Garment: Yes. The, the scandals of the post Watergate years behaved in something like a classic boomerang fashion. They began, I think, as a real partisan tool. This was a case of Democrats and mainly Democrats in the Congress trying to curb the imperial Presidency which not accidentally, happened to be the Republican Presidency. And they did so partly by means of these active Congressional Committees and the new laws and the new investigators and the, the changes that we’re now so familiar with. After a while, though, these same changes turned around and bit the Congressmen, many of whom who had participated in creating them. And towards the end of the decade we began to see many more Congressional scandals than scandals involving the White House.

Heffner: Interestingly, of course, even there wasn’t just the Executive Branch versus the Legislative Branch, it was that you found the scandals on both sides of the aisle. Republicans, Conservatives, Liberals, Democrats … both. Now, why in the world would someone go into politics at a time when it seems that everyone is fair game, no matter what you do, or haven’t done, you are fair game for those who appoint an accusing finger.

Garment: That is a good question.

Heffner: What’s the answer?

Garment: That is … I think, I think that a lot of people look at what’s happening and don’t want to go into politics. There are, there are a few reasons why the government finds it hard to recruit people now, and why political parties find it difficult to recruit candidates. One reason is, of course, money. Though that’s probably less of a reason than is, that is sometimes thought because, because people make arrangements and they make their plans and, and the money is a given. What’s, what’s not a given is the Washington Post factor. That is, how would you feel to know that any morning you may wake up and find yourself on the front page of the Washington Post and it’s not going to be because you’re going to be receiving a medal for public service. In addition, that, that climate of mistrust has been institutionalized in other ways. There are conflict of interest rules now that are so tight that they often prevent someone, pretty thoroughly from going to work, after his government service, in the field that he came from, or in a field that’s, that’s closely related to what he was doing in government. And people who see that kind of limitation being placed on their career are, are very hesitant to go into government. I think people who are in this field have all heard others say that they wouldn’t go into government now. There are, of course, people who want to go into government. There will always be a long line of candidates, and the question is how good they’re going to be.

Heffner: Suzanne, I, I have the feeling that after reading your book the line of candidates is going to be one great deal shorter.

Garment: (Laughter) Well…

Heffner: No?

Garment: Well, not necessarily. Perhaps everyone will read this book and take, take it as the cautionary tale that it is and change behavior somewhat.

Heffner: Wait a minute, wait a minute. That, that was easy enough … it was easy to say before this sentence … these sentences that I just read when we used to think of scandals as evolving from corruption, and corruption having to do with putting your hand in the till. Now, you’ve said that increasingly it is scandal as a matter of lust. It is a matter of personal behavior. And is it really so likely that people are going to say…easy to say, “I’m not going to steal”. It’s a lot more difficult, even would-be President Carter said that at one point said there was lust, he admitted, in his heart. Quite seriously, can you … can you stay in public life … you can make the pledge not to steal. Hut can you stay in public life and make the pledge not to do those things on a personal level because you and your friends have made what one does on a personal level public information.

Garment: It’s very difficult. I didn’t … I didn’t mean to be flip about it. The, the change in behavior that would have to come about would have to entail, among other things, a constriction again of the area in which journalists and others felt free to operate when it came to people’s public lives. There would have to be a test of relevance that was a lot tighter than it is now. There would have to be some kind of statute of limitations because some of what we see dredged up is truly ancient. And third, there would have to be a more conscientious standard of reliability, especially with these sex scandals, the information is inherently unreliable since these are private acts. And you’re never going to know what really took place. So that, so that even if you’re being told about a truly heinous act, that if true, would disqualify a man for public office, you really have a very hard time knowing whether it’s true or not. But once the rumor is in circulation, certainly once it’s printed, or once it’s broadcast, it doesn’t matter whether it’s true.

Heffner: Now, what am I going to do about my friend Suzanne Garment, who writes to some considerable extent about the over-reach of journalism into the private matters of, of … not just of citizens, of course, but of people who’ve chosen to go into politics and then repeats the names and gives new currency to the scandals. How am I going to deal with that? Why did you do it?

Garment: Oh, that I…

Heffner: You named the names.

Garment: … that I…

Heffner: Yeah.

Garment: There’s no way you can discuss it without naming the names, and that is the problem of many journalists who deal with these scandals. And it’s part of the reason why journalists really do have a hard time coming to grips with this problem and they, they do feel constrained, they’re not just all scandal-mongers. It’s very hard to know how to write about these pieces of news without naming the names. I, of course, limited myself to things that had already become matters of record, but so do many journalists.

Heffner: Okay, I’m not going to push you too hard on this though

Garment: Thanks.

Heffner: … as I read the book, I really felt “when I get her there at this table, I’m going to push because I realize that if I were one of these people, I would read it and my friends would read it, and so many people are going to read your book and the whole business is going to be churned up once again.

Garment: Well, it’s a little different I think. When I wrote about these incidents at any length, you know there were some that were mentioned in passing, and some I did write about at greater length.

Heffner: Yes.

Garment: And I was usually in touch with the people involved. Partly because I had to re-report the scandal to a certain extent, in order to find out something about what effect this scandal had on, on an individual’s private life, career, family. And this was the kind of information that wasn’t reported in the press. It’s not part of a scandal story, so I, I tried to supply a little of what was missing, and often the only way to supply it was to go to the person who was the object of scandal.

Heffner: Now, you mentioned before that certain things would have to happen to diminish the, the really negative impact upon private individuals, or public individuals, but upon their private lives. Do you think any of the things that you’ve mentioned will take place? Will journalists look for the relevance of charges before they report them? Will they sustain the higher ground that you want them to take?

Garment: Well, it may seem Pollyanna-ish, but I, I’ve seen some changes in the way that journalists look at the world, and the way the rest of us who are involved in politics look at the world. During the mid-sixties, for instance, I remembered that, that my comrades and I thought that the sexual revolution was irreversible, that once you had freed people from the shackles of an outdated morality, you were never going to get them to go backwards. And it wasn’t true. People did go backwards in that sense. And things that were permissible became impermissible. And I think that, that the same thing can happen with regard to this kind of reportage. I hear more and more people talking about this as a problem, and they’ll never get together to do something about it, but tastes will change, and that, I think, is how these changes occur if they ever do.

Heffner: Suzanne, do you think tastefulness will change? I agree with you about tastes … do you think the journalists concern for what is tasteful, for what we in our highfalutin way will call “tasteful”? Will, will those perceptions change?

Garment: There are a lot of structural obstacles to change now. Competition in the business is…

Heffner: In the business of journalism.

Garment: … of journalism … is fiercer than it ever was. It’s fiercer as you know because there are more outlets, it’s also fiercer because of the rise of the ethos of investigative journalism and the decision of more and more news organizations to put investigative journalists in the field. And that, I think, is going to be a block to any, any such change that I envision. But, these things do go on at leading newspapers, these debates. At The New York Times such a debate went on quite fiercely when the paper named the name of the alleged rape victim in the Kennedy case, and to the extent that that happens you can begin to have a certain ebbing of the tide.

Heffner: You know, it’s fascinating that we say “in the incidence of the Kennedy case”, not “in the incidence of the Smith case”. That would sound too much like, “as in the instance of the Jones case”.

Garment: Yes … who would care about the “Smith case”?

Heffner: Right, and that’s, that’s the thing that concerns me the most. But you do feel…

Garment: Yes.

Heffner: …that there is some movement. That isn’t, of course … you’ll forgive me … that isn’t why people are going to run out to buy your book … they’re going to run out to buy your book to find out about scandal because they’re just as interested in reading that in book form … all of those things together

Garment: (Laughter) All of those together.

Heffner: …as in reading, reading the individual stories.

Garment: Well then I should put a caveat on, on the cover of the book. If, if people really want to read about scandal, in salacious detail, and with a lot of new stuff, they probably should not buy the book

Heffner: Well…

Garment: … because…

Heffner: … I’m, I’m … seriously … I’m not so sure about that. I’m really not so sure about that because here you’ve got it all together, and what one wants to come and feel about and read about and think about American politicos and their “scan-dals” here it is … intriguing and disturbing because here’s a guy who looks down his nose at this kind of reporting, and yet I lap it up, not just because you’re coming on the program, but because it’s an intriguing volume.

Garment: And, and we all do. As news consumers, I think, we will all take as much of this stuff as is put in front of us.

Heffner: Do you think … in the minute we have left … that it’s any of our damn business?

Garment: In most eases … no. (Laughter) That is, the character issue is a real issue. Character does have huge effects on, on people’s performance as public officials. But we don’t know how to measure character, or judge it, or integrate … judgments about character into our broader political judgments about candidates, and since that’s true, we probably should knock it off in the absence of truly heinous crimes.

Heffner: And you think that’s ever going to happen in our time?

Garment: A little bit more.

Heffner: A little bit more.

Garment: That’s all we can hope for.

Heffner: Listen, Suzanne, I’m, I’m delighted to have this discussion with you…to have had this discussion with you … and I wonder if we’ll come back here five year from now, whether your conclusion is going to be a “little bit better” and “a little bit better” and then maybe 10, 15 years from now, you’re going to feel a lot better abut your colleagues in the press.

Garment: I don’t know. But I’m going to keep up dating this book (laughter)

Heffner: (Laughter)

Garment: …we’re going to have a yearly pocket supplement. So I’ll always be available.

Heffner: Thanks so much for joining me today, Suzanne Garment. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, and what she has written, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P. 0. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: the Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; the I Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; the New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.