In the corridors of power, disgrace means never having to say you're sorry D.C.'s Undead CAMPAIGN 1994


The names are familiar. Marion Barry. Oliver North. Bob Packwood. G. Gordon Liddy. Spiro T. Agnew.

Washington names.

Names that conjure up politics and some sort of fall from political grace.

Names that conjure up memories of such things as: drugs, lying, sexual harassment and burglary.

For a while, after they lied or cheated or misrepresented or whatever, some of these folks went away. A couple, of course, went to prison. Others just tried disappearing by keeping a low political profile and praying that the media's moving finger would move on.

Now they're back. All of them. Back from their near-death experience -- politically speaking -- and poised to infiltrate the halls of power once more.

Ex-D.C. mayor Marion Barry, after serving time for cocaine possession, is making a bid to return to his old job.

Ex-Marine officer Oliver North -- who, a Virginia judge recently ruled, can no longer carry a gun because he is "not of good character" -- is the Republican Senate nominee in Virginia.

Ex-burglar G. Gordon Liddy -- who's made a fortune on the lecture circuit -- has become a superstar as a syndicated radio talk show host.

Current Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood -- recently introduced by ABC's David Brinkley as "an authority on the subject of scandals" -- has emerged from the midst of sexual harassment charges to assume a leadership role on the Republican health care bill.

They are some of a growing number of Washington's Comeback Kids. Nothing, it seems, can stop them. Not a sense of shame. Not public opinion. Perhaps not even a stake through the heart.

Call them: The Undead.

"Everybody's coming back from the dead," says syndicated columnist John Leo of U.S. News & World Report. "Look at Tony Coelho. He left Congress under an enormous cloud. Now he's coming back to advise the Democratic National Committee."

Mr. Coelho, in case you've forgotten, is the former California representative whose downfall in 1989 came amid reports that he had profited financially from his political connections. "I always thought Coelho was a real crook," Mr. Leo says. "Still, I guess it's better than Bert Lance coming back."

Bert Lance, in case you've forgotten, was the Carter administration budget director who resigned in the wake of a controversy concerning his personal financial dealings.

"Look at Nixon," continues Mr. Leo. "Nixon kept bouncing back. Had five presidents at his funeral. If Nixon can do it, [Nazi Gestapo leader Heinrich] Himmler should be able to do it."

In other words, when F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives, he didn't mean politicians.

"There are getting to be more and more of these second acts in politics and people are just too weary to care," says Suzanne Garment, author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in Politics" and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "My sense of it is that the surfeit of scandals since Watergate and the surfeit of moralism in politics have simply burned us out . . .

"We've simply lost our will to keep on administering Draconian punishments. It used to be that when you were indicted, it was a big deal. Now when you get indicted it doesn't even get you uninvited to Washington dinner parties."

In fact, sometimes it makes you even more popular. At least after a while.

"You must never count anyone out in Washington, because everyone can be reborn here," says Diana McLellan, Washingtonian writer and former "Ear" gossip columnist. "The cast of characters is so limited here that disgrace lasts only a certain amount of time. In Washington there is a statute of limitations on disgrace.

"Take Mike Deaver," she says, referring to the former Reagan adviser and lobbyist convicted on three counts of perjury. "When he was in disgrace, Washington people quite literally avoided him as though he had cooties. But the cooties leave after a while. He's very popular now. The savvy old-timers, the ones who know you're never really dead in Washington, will come up to you after a while and offer their hand."

Besides, after a while no one can really remember exactly what it was that landed a politician in hot water.

"They grow accustomed to your undead face," says Ms. McLellan. "People see you and they forget exactly what it is you did wrong. It could be anything -- from misapplying your expense account to raping your secretary. They know there was something but they can't remember what."

Republican strategist and TV talk show host Mary Matalin agrees with Ms. McLellan. "Her theory is right," says Ms. Matalin, who was deputy manager of the Bush re-election campaign in 1992. "There is a statute of limitations. It's the nature of politics. The memory of it is so fleeting."

Not only that, says Ms. Matalin, but people in the inner circle of politics are willing to cut some slack for those who are skilled at what they do. Particularly if you are a skilled political strategist. Like Ms. Matalin. And like her husband, James Carville, who was Clinton's campaign strategist in 1992.

"It's a tough, tough area and there aren't many of us in it," says Ms. Matalin. "So the culture gives you latitude for mistakes. And you make mistakes. Like Ed Rollins did in New Jersey."

Ed Rollins, in case you've forgotten, hit the skids when he fabricated a story about suppressing the black vote in last year's New Jersey gubernatorial race. Now he's involved in several major Republican campaigns for the Senate and House.

Supply and demand

"But I predicted he [Mr. Rollins] would be back," says Ms. Matalin. "And he is. What we're operating on here is the supply-and-demand principle."

It is not a principle that holds water for Ann F. Lewis, a political consultant and former political director of the Democratic National Committee. "Ed Rollins -- that one simply stuns me. . . . Now I see Republican candidates who have concluded that Ed Rollins is so uniquely talented on their side of the aisle that they will hire him anyway. In that case I see a manipulative approach to voters, an exploitation, I find troubling."

She also finds something of a gender gap in the list of Undeads coming back. "Do you notice a gender similarity in the names?" she asks. "It is my experience that if a woman makes a minor error she is judged much more harshly by the system. Whereas, the operating rules for male politicians are, 'I already said I was sorry, but now let's just get on with it.' "

As an example of the gender gap she cites the case of one Bella Abzug: "I would just point out that people still talk about Bella Abzug as having lacked certain interpersonal skills at a time when we are seeing the Bob Packwoods assume leadership on the Republican health care bill."

Which brings up a question: What about redemption? Why shouldn't someone who's paid their dues -- Marion Barry, for instance -- be given a second chance at power?

"But he didn't pay his dues," says John Leo. "He did some time but he never apologized for what he did. I don't like the way the government got him, but the guy took the 'Night of the Living Dead' defense: 'Somebody put chemicals in my food and that's why I did it.' "

Most Americans, says Suzanne Garment, want to forgive and forget: "We've developed a therapeutic culture, one that tends to forgive anything if only explanation is given and reform is promised."

If a politician has paid his dues, says Leon Wurmser, a Baltimore psychoanalyst who is an authority on issues of shame, there is nothing necessarily wrong with allowing him or her to reassume a position of power.

No regrets

"But have these people you named paid their dues?" asks Dr. Wurmser. "Really, none of them has. None has repented. None has expressed a deep, honest sense of regret or sorrow. I think this is the difference. If there is a deep remorse for what one has done, it should not be held against them. And they should be entrusted with high office or responsibility no less than someone who has not gone through a crisis like that."

Still, it is possible to find one person in the city of Washington who has no opinion on the subject of disgraced politicians. His name is Paul Zucconi and he is maitre d' at La Colline restaurant, which is located just opposite the Capitol Building. "I've served all of these people and as far as I'm concerned, they're customers. What they've done makes no difference to me."

Which brings us to: Spiro T. Agnew. The only vice president forced to resign, Mr. Agnew will soon be back in an official role in Washington. This fall -- after some debate as to whether to spend taxpayers' money on such a project -- a marble bust of Mr. Agnew will join the gallery of all the vice presidents in the Capitol.

"You see," sees Diana McLellan, "there is always a statute of limitations on disgrace."

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