The Impropriety of Appearances Used to Foment Scandal


Sometime in the next couple of months, Washington will have its traditional summer scandal. It will be brief but intense, like a thunderstorm. And it will drench the parched political landscape, giving welcome relief to desperate journalists and politicos during the hot dry season.

This happens almost every year. The first one I lived through involved Bert Lance, President Carter's budget director. It had something to do with a bank, I dimly recall, and his wife had a funny name. But it all seemed quite thrilling at the time.

Last summer we had Saddam Hussein. But that was truly exceptional. Come August, we'll be searching for some lesser malfeasance to blow out of proportion. John Sununu's transportation woes were perfect, but -- like the hot weather itself -- they came too soon.

At some point in this future episode, someone will declare that the problem is not any misbehavior itself but rather the "appearance" of impropriety or the "perception" of a conflict of interest. And thus the scandal will drift off into a misty afterlife realm where Tongsun Park is eternally dancing with Donna Rice while the Wedtech Orchestra plays hits from the Watergate tapes.

What's nice about the appearances/perceptions fudge is its versatility. It can be useful to any party in an unfolding scandal: the alleged wrongdoer, the accuser, the official tribunal, the press.

For the miscreant himself and his allies, "appearances" are a way of conceding error without confessing guilt. In announcing that John Sununu would henceforth have to clear his air-travel plans with the White House counsel, President Bush said, "I want this administration to continue to be above the perception of impropriety." Was the perception of Mr. Sununu's impropriety a correct perception? Mr. Bush was never forced to say.

The general counsel of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas said recently the school's regents were "extremely concerned about . . . even the appearance of a relationship" between UNLV's basketball team and a convicted game fixer. "The appearance" of a relationship was a published photograph of three UNLV players and Richard "The Fixer" Perry sitting in a hot tub together.

But "appearances" can also be a way of accusing someone of wrongdoing without saying what, if anything, is really wrong. It is a shortcut to moral outrage. And it is self-fulfilling, since the accusations themselves help to create the perception they complain about.

Congressional Democrats demanded that Richard Thornburgh resign as attorney general when he announced his intention to run for the Senate. Why? According to the Washington Post, they say he has "created the appearance of a conflict of interest by deciding to stay on." Now either there is a conflict of interest or there isn't. It's intellectually lazy and unfair to fry Mr. Thornburgh for the mere appearance of one.

The most egregious use of the appearances dodge recently was in the Senate Ethics Committee's treatment of the Keating Five. The committee cited two of the five, Dennis DeConcini and Don Reigle, for conduct that gave the "appearance of being improper."

It hardly requires the elaborate and costly proceedings of the Senate Ethics Committee to determine that there has been an appearance of impropriety. Of course there's the appearance of impropriety. That is why the Ethics Committee was convened. What we want to know is: was there impropriety?

Journalists also resort to the appearances cop-out. There was a small ethical flurry in May over Robert Clarke, a senior federal bank regulator, who was borrowing money from banks to play the market in stocks and junk bonds. The usual: the New York Times reported that critics on Capitol Hill said he was "insensitive to the appearance of impropriety"; Mr. Clarke apologized for having "inadvertently contributed to a public perception of conflict of interest." Then along came the Times editorial page to accuse Mr. Clarke of a shocking "appearance of impropriety."

So the press has done its duty and reality has been brought into line with perceptions: Mr. Clarke has put his investments into a blind trust. Surely, though, it is the function of the New York Times to bring perceptions into line with reality, not the other way around. Were Mr. Clarke's investments ethically wrong, or not?

Perhaps the news pages cannot settle this question, but the editorial page ought to be able to settle it at least to its own satisfaction.

The appearance of an ethical problem can lead to the appearance of an ethical solution. In Illinois recently, the leading state labor and business political action committees agreed to boycott fund-raisers by state legislators during the months of April, May and June. "We've been concerned about the appearance of impropriety," one lobbyist explained; it "looked like vote buying."

Of course, what the lobbyists manage to avoid with their ostentatious three months of self-restraint is not even the appearance of impropriety -- it's only the appearance of impropriety. The impropriety itself remains. The political action committees are still there, and if they are not managing to buy a few votes they are a fraud on their members. But at least the perceptions are taken care of.

TRB wrote this commentary for The New Republic.

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