Wright Should Have Learned From Furor Over Hart, Ethics Session Participants Say
When Harvard University planned a conference on ethics and morals in the 1988 presidential campaign, no one involved imagined it would take place during a raging new controversy over political values with no less than House Speaker Jim Wright at the center of the storm.
But many of the scholars and analysts at the meeting, which ended Tuesday, asserted that a strong connection exists between Wright’s predicament and the questions raised during the campaign.
The harsh judgments being made about the personal finances of Wright by the House Ethics Committee and also the rejection of the nomination of former Texas Sen. John Tower to be defense secretary, partly because of his drinking habits, were both attributed in part to intensified concern about the private behavior of public officials.
A ‘Vacuum About Morality’
“The campaign revealed a kind of vacuum about morality, a sense of drift,” David Hollenbach, professor of moral theology at Boston’s Weston School of Theology, told a reporter. “When there’s drift, people tend to reach out for something concrete and seize upon it.
“Both these cases (Tower and Wright) have served as a kind of lightning rod for public anxiety about morals,” said Hollenbach in between panel discussions at the conference, which was co-sponsored by the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy and the Harvard Divinity School.
Many politicians contend that the actions of Wright and Tower are now being judged in the harsher light of a new era of morality. Wright himself complained that these standards were being applied to his behavior retroactively, or, as he put it, he was being judged “in a rear-view mirror.”
But participants here suggested that Tower and Wright might have drawn lessons from the 1988 campaign’s furors over candidate behavior, the most celebrated of which involved Gary Hart, whose weekend dalliance with Miami model Donna Rice wrecked his once bright hopes for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Just as Wright and Tower responded to criticism with righteous indignation, Hart rejected the disapproving chorus from the public and press until it drove him out of the race.
Even before the storm about his relationship with Rice broke, Hart drew a sharp distinction between what he called public morality and private behavior. “Each of us have our own set of personal values,” he said in an interview. “But there also are an identifiable and quantifiable set of public values” that are the stuff of political debate.
“Society has the right to regulate personal behavior that affects society as a whole,” Hart said. But, otherwise, he maintained, individuals have the right to behave pretty much as they please.
Unfortunately for Hart, society was not prepared to accept that permissive standard, either for him and for another Democratic candidate for President, Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. Like Hart, Biden was forced to abandon his candidacy after being exposed as having indulged in unseemly behavior--in his case, the plagiarism of speeches.
Both cases underlined the public anxiety about the character traits of presidential candidates, a concern that many thought had been sharpened by perceptions of personal weaknesses of President Ronald Reagan in handling the Iran-Contra affair.
Some candidates used the increased focus on values to their advantage. Republican Sen. Bob Dole insisted on bringing his presidential campaign to Russell, Kan., the small town in which he grew up, to dramatize his claim of being an exponent of small town values. Vice President George Bush provided a striking demonstration of the use of values against Democrat Michael S. Dukakis, pounding away at the Massachusetts governor on such issues as prison furloughs and the Pledge of Allegiance.
But some critics at the conference argued that such simplifications, although they generate political heat, shed little light on the legitimate questions surrounding political values.
As usually employed in campaigns, “the word value is a weasel word that conceals more than it reveals,” Harvey G. Cox, Harvard Divinity School professor, complained.
The way campaigns generally discuss values “reinforces passivity” and discourages serious reflection by the voter, University of Texas communications specialist Kathleen Jamieson said.
As a consequence, she said, “we talk about the individual personal values” of politicians rather than the larger and more fundamental issues that citizens should assess as they choose leaders.
It was the trap of personal behavior that ensnared John Tower and which now threatens Jim Wright.