In its July-August issue, this magazine published a “Tidbits and Outrages” item about Leonard Garment and Michael Straight. In its entirety, it read as follows:

“Leonard Garment has from the early days of this Administration been the White House’s man in charge of the arts. Michael Straight works under him as deputy chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts. From 1969 until last month, Mr. Straight had arranged for Mr. Garment to rent a 17-acre Fairfax County estate, which includes two ponds, a red brick colonial house, a barn, and a caretaker’s house, for $275 a month. This story has appeared in both The Washington Post and The Washington Star-News, without one word in either to suggest any impropriety, even though this tidy arrangement saved Garment about $25,000 in rent since 1969. Had a less wealthy government official showered his boss with such largesse, it would be a major scandal. But when the culprit was someone as socially prominent as Straight, it was all seen as the kind gesture of a friend.”

Several days after the article appeared, Michael Straight called us on the phone. What he said then he repeated shortly afterwards in a letter: that he expected an immediate apology and, failing one, that he would “seek legal advice as to my next steps.” He enclosed a copy of a letter he had written to Richard Rovere, chairman of The Washington Monthly‘s editorial advisory board, in which he expressed “disgust and outrage” at being characterized as a “culprit.”

In the following days Straight wrote to other members of the advisory board, including Russell Baker and James David Barber, and to Jay Rockefeller, who has invested in the magazine. Some of Straight’s friends complained directly to us. One of them was Gilbert Harrison, editor of The New Republic. Harrison’s letter, which is printed in full in the “Letters” section of this issue, concluded by saying that we had “done a shameful thing to a man whose entire career shines with honor and with disinterested service to the public good.”

Harrison also said that the whole affair was a prime example of the “moral myopia” which we, in a series of articles, have pointed out in others. For reasons different from Harrison’s, I agree that the episode offers an opportunity for a lesson about “moral myopia.” Telling the “story behind the story” is, in general, one of journalism’s less charming attributes, involving as it so often does revelations on the All the President’s Men scale, without the intrinsic interest of that adventure. In this instance, however, it may be worth making an exception. The Michael Straight story—how we treated it, the response that followed—tells a great deal about both journalistic ethics and perceptions of official morality.

Our purpose in publishing the original item was not to defame Michael Straight, but to point out what seemed to us a serious sin of omission by the press. To understand what we were getting at, it may be helpful to provide some background: Michael Straight, now 58 years old, has long been a prominent figure in Washington’s social scene. He was born in America but raised in England after his father, a diplomat, died at the end of the First World War. He was educated at Cambridge and the London School of Economics, and began his Washington career in 1937, when he was 21 years old, as a researcher and writer for the Departments of Interior and State. In 1940 he became Washington editor of The New Republic, which his mother’s family had established 25 years before. He spent three years in the Air Force during the war; later, he returned to the magazine to succeed Henry Wallace as its editor. In the post-war years he was national chairman of the American Veterans Committee, and since then has held such positions as chairman of the board of Amnesty International of the U. S., vice chairman of the National Repertory Theater, and co-chairman of the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP.

After, leaving The New Republic in the late 1950s, Straight devoted his time to writing novels and non-fiction books. Then, in November 1969, the Nixon Administration appointed him deputy director of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Three months earlier, in August, both The Washington Post and The New York Times had reported that Straight was the Administration’s choice to become director of the Endowment. Straight now claims that the reports of his selection were inaccurate; in any case, they caused such a protest among Republican senators that the Administration soon found a Republican nominee, Nancy Hanks, who is still director.

When the Post reported the rumor, society columnist Maxine Cheshire printed the following information: “Michael Straight is the Democrat who has been picked by the Nixon Administration to replace Roger Stevens, who was fired by the Nixon Administration as chairman of the National Council of the Arts because he was a Democrat. A friend called the Watergate Hotel here to find out where to send Straight a congratulatory telegram. The forwarding address given was in care of Mudge, Rose, Guthrie & Alexander. That is President Nixon’s old firm. Straight is one of their richest clients.”

Mudge, Rose was also Leonard Garment’s old firm. Straight and Garment became friends during the 1960s when Garment handled Straight’s legal business, which was considerable, since it included family philanthropies set up by the Whitney fortune Straight inherited on his mother’s side.

Without knowing any more about the case, these circumstances should have suggested several possibilities to anyone who read the newspaper story about Leonard Garment’s rent. One, of course, was that Straight had been the best qualified man for the job, and that the deal on the house was nothing more than the kind gesture of a friend.

The other possibility, though only a possibility, was that Straight and Garment were using that classic vehicle for the exchange of favors, the lawyer-client relationship. In Congress and in state legislatures, votes are occasionally bought with money under the table; but when one of the parties is a lawyer, a more elegant alternative exists. In exchange for a favor from the lawyer-legislator, his client can arrange for him ‘to get a nice piece of legal business—often through deals so complicated and involving so many third and fourth parties—that it is hard to tell exactly what is going on. If I were to assume that this second possibility was the correct one, my guess would be that the rental arrangement was a mere sweetener to a deal in which the main element was something else—Garment’s assumption that he could hold onto Straight’s legal business when he returned to Mudge, Rose, and Straight’s knowledge, conscious or unconscious, that the house and the legal business guaranteed him the job.

Asking the Right Questions

The facts as presented in the newspapers would not prove either alternative. But one need only imagine that congressmen and paving contractors were involved in a similar relationship to understand how quickly the press and public would perceive an apparent conflict of interest and start asking questions. When people like Straight and Garment were involved, no one even suggested that the second possibility might exist. And that was why we ran the item—to illustrate the double standard of moral accountability. We did not mean to imply that the most cynical view of the situation was necessarily the correct one. To the extent that the word “culprit” suggested that we had leapt to that conclusion, we should not have used it.

Because the angry response to the item dealt with the substance of the. relationship and not its suspicious appearance, we have tried to investigate the matter further. On the one hand, we found a further strand in the connection between Straight and the Administration that we had not known about before: Straight, who had not contributed to the 1968 Nixon campaign, made two $1,000 contributions in 1972. There are two possible explanations for this: one, that he was trying to keep his job (Roger Stevens was fired for contributing to Hubert Humphrey’s campaign), and, two, that Straight believed in the Nixon Administration.

On the other hand, a good deal of evidence about the rent arrangement came down on Michael Straight’s side. The residence in question is Green Springs Farm, an 18th-century estate which Straight bought in 1942 and where he lived until 1965. The 17 acres we mentioned were only part of the Straight property; another 14 acres adjoined them and fronted on a major road. There were two factual errors in our report: relying upon the newspaper stories, we said that the rental property included the caretaker’s house, which it did not, and that Garment rented all 17 acres, when in fact he rented only six. These six, however, included the buildings and were worth some $250,000 of the estate’s $400,000 total value. It might also be mentioned that Straight never corrected the erroneous reporting in the Post and Star-News, whose stories appeared several months before our item.

When he moved off the farm in 1965 and first rented it to a tenant, Straight charged $250 per month, even lower than Garment’s $275. He has two explanations for setting the rent so low. One is that Straight retained full rights to enter and use the land, including its stables and tennis court. The second is that he was in the middle of complicated negotiations about the farm with the Fairfax county government. As the area around the farm became more and more built-up, Straight concluded that it was impractical to leave the whole farm property intact and undeveloped. He wanted to preserve the historic farm and the 17 acres which surrounded it, but he also wanted to sell the 14-acre parcel to a purchaser who planned to develop it. The sale depended on a re-zoning from the county board, which it was reluctant to give. Although Straight contends that, if necessary, he could have sued the county board for a re-zoning and won, a tacit exchange was arranged: Straight donated the 17 acres to the county for historic preservation, and the county granted the re-zoning.

Garment took up residence at the farm while negotiations were still going on. In order to ‘keep the title clear for transfer, Straight gave Garment a lease that was terminable on 30 days’ notice any time after the first month. “He understood that the property might be transferred to the county within weeks of his occupancy, and that there was no assurance that the county would permit him to continue to live in the house,” Straight wrote in a letter. Later he said in an interview, “I would have had difficulty finding an arms-length tenant to accept the lease on those terms.” The transfer went through in 1970, and Garment remained there until this year.

Where does this leave us? By every account, Straight is a man of great personal honor, and there is nothing here to contradict that. Leonard Garment, too, is a respectable man; he pulled off the remarkable feat of living at Richard Nixon’s right hand during the Watergate years while keeping his personal reputation intact. At the same time, without impugning Garment’s genuine friendship with Straight, one can point out that good relations with Straight have been profitable for Garment. Apart from the legal business, there is the savings on the home. If Garment were to rent a $250,000 property on the open market, he would expect to pay close to $20,000 each year in rent, instead of $3,300. Even if he were looking for something more modest, he could hardly escape for less than $700 a month for a place befitting his social and professional standing. That would be $8,400 per year, or, over the course of five years, about $25,500 more than he paid for the farm.

Parallels to Straight

The significance of the Straight item is how closely the reaction it provoked parallels the reaction to_ five other articles we have published in the last year. All of these articles were out of the mainstream of normal political reporting; they had in common that they focused not on the traditional public figures of the government, who are the accustomed fair game of the press, but on organizations and individuals who in one way or another are part of a private, more respectable world. One article concerned the dean of the Harvard Medical School, Dr. Robert Ebert, and his relation with the Squibb Pharmaceutical Company. Another, the network of friendships and business relations in the New York publishing world, which often meant that friends wound up reviewing friends’ books in journals (especially The New York Review of Books) allied with friendly publishing houses. Another article was on the staff of the Senate Watergate committee and its reaction to “leaks” from its own members. Still another examined a public-interest group in the South, the Southern Regional Council, and the way it administered the foundation grants it received. Most recently, we discussed Jack Anderson’s handling of the Eagleton case.

Once you leave the clearly charted waters of political conduct, there is a tremendous peril in publishing anything that purports to discuss morality, as these articles did, because it sets you up for a terrible fall. Russell Baker has expressed the peril well: “Making moral judgments in the absence of blatant offense is a theological business, and unless a publication is able to document offenses with incontrovertible evidence, it tends to put itself into the position of appearing preachy and unduly superior.”

We are aware of that danger and hate to court it. It seemed to us, however, that the danger is freely enough courted by reporters who write about defense contractors, the highway lobby, and politicians in general, and that there are two important reasons for applying the same standards to those who belong to a less suspect social set. The first reason is that the failings which reach grotesque and easily identifiable proportions in a Richard Nixon or a Harold Geneen often have their subtle analogues among “good” people as well. The Watergate committee was almost a parody of this situation, interrupting its study of Nixon and the leak-haters so that it could launch a witch-hunt against its own leaker. Another example was The New York Review of Books: although it is as high-quality a journal as is published in this country, several of its leading figures showed themselves insensitive to apparent conflicts of interest which—had they involved the congressman and the contractor—would have been cause for immediate suspicion.

The second reason is that while most of the people we wrote about do not actually hold public office, their activities involve considerable amounts of financial, social, and professional power. The Southern Regional Council controls the lion’s share of non-government money for social action in the South. While the New York literary alliances are, relatively speaking, playing for modest financial stakes, for the individual author they represent a potentially powerful star-making machine. The Harvard Medical School has something to do with the ethical tone of the profession as a whole. And so on. Another way of saying it is this: if reporters selected their stories solely on the magnitude of financial or social effect, then some subjects like the Southern Regional Council and Dr. Ebert’s arrangement would take precedence over some traditional governmental exposes. (Morton Mintz of The Washington Post did, in fact, write about Dr. Ebert before our story came out.)

Thin Skins

Among them, these five or six stories have generated at least 90 per cent of the angry responses this magazine has received. It is significant that, of the subjects, the only one to respond with some moderation was Jack Anderson. While Anderson is perhaps the most “famous” member of the group, he is also, in a sense, the least “respectable.” He lacks those qualities which, in varying proportion, insulate the others from questions about apparent conflict of interest: social prominence, membership in a respected profession, and, in some cases, personal wealth.

Anderson’s response, printed in the “Letters” section of this issue, is interesting because while he was a target this time, he is far more often accuser. His own writing, which is fearless in taking on the respectable wrong-doers, but which sometimes does so in an unsophisticated, nonclassy way, is an illustration of why other writers hesitate to go after the respectable targets. Jack Anderson’s reputation may be all right for Jack Anderson, but someone who hopes to write in the highbrow magazines or be accepted as a peer by those he writes about may be afraid of being lumped in the muckraker category.

In contrast to Anderson, most of the people who are possessed of those qualities of wealth, respectability, and social prominence, react to questions with indignation that the inquiry has been undertaken at all. The New York Review case was the most extreme example. To the reasonable observer, the facts of the New York Review-Random House relationship were enough to create, at a minimum, the appearance of a conflict of interest. In 1968, for example, when Random House was buying disproportionate amounts of advertising in the Review, and when Jason Epstein was known to be a major influence at both institutions, 23 per cent of the books singled out for individual review were from Random House. That was more than Viking, Grove Press, Holt, Harper & Row, Houghton Mifflin, Oxford, Doubleday, Macmillan, Harvard, and Princeton combined, although those 10 houses published six times as many books as Random House that year. Half the essays in the Review that year were by Random House authors, as were 25 per cent of the reviews.

Just as in Michael Straight’s case, one possible explanation for these facts is that they were an honest coincidence. If they were, the circumstances were so wild that those involved should at least have expected others to ask questions. If it had been the Epstein Paving Co., with the boss’s wife on the board of commissioners (Barbara Epstein is co-editor of the Review) and juicy contracts coming its way, it would not have taken reporters long to start inquiring. But when Jason Epstein replied, he did not address one bit of the evidence. Instead, he rolled out the big names to indicate the poor taste of our questions: “Do you really think that W. H. Auden, I. F. Stone, Stephen Spender, V. S. Pritchett, Christopher Lasch, and so on (who are all Random House authors and writers for the Review) are involved in a literary fraud manipulated by me? … Do you understand how deeply your article insults those writers?”

In the world of politics, honesty, and the appearance of honesty, have become issues of almost suffocating importance, and to find such insensitivity to appearance among our “finer” people indicates a quite literal double standard.

In recommending a greater willingness to ask and be open, there are three things I definitely do not mean. One is that an individual’s rights to privacy and reputation are things of no consequence, which may be carelessly abused in print. It is probably true, as Henry Kissinger demonstrated in his famous Salzburg outburst, that too much stress is placed on maintaining an absolutely blotless record—on being free from all criticism, rather than taking criticism, answering it, and coming out ahead. Nonetheless, journalists have a duty to ask questions but not fling accusations.

Second, I do not mean that all of us, press and public, should become compulsively cynical about motives and arrangements. As it turns out, automatic cynicism has long been the trademark of one of the worst sorts of political writing—that which identifies every Pentagon employee as a war criminal and all congressmen as porkbarreling simpletons. This view of the world overlooks the cultural and personal complications that also shape behavior—just as the journalist’s normal view of the respectable world emphasizes personal qualities to the exclusion of analysis. We get an alternation between extremes, never better illustrated than in Mary McCarthy’s recent book on the war, The Seventeenth Degree. She refers in the abstract to American officials as tools of brutality and imperialism. But when she deals with a few old friends in the government, notably Ambassador Chip Bohlen, she treats them only as friends, rather than applying any political analysis. A measure of both is called for—more humanity for the bureaucrats, tougher standards for the friends.

Finally, the lesson of Michael Straight, et al., is not that one should automatically avoid all relationships where the appearance might raise questions. Unless you are the Pope, it can be just as foolish to be inflexible about who you associate with and what you do as it is to lack any sensitivity to questionable appearances. To take one example from this magazine’s experience, a few years back one of our investors called with a hot tip for a story, an expose of how the famous Boys’ Town in Nebraska was being run. We said yes, it sounds like a good idea—and never did anything with it. Everyone knew it might be a good story, but nobody wanted to be the one who followed up the investor’s story. Shortly afterwards a newspaper looked at Boys’ Town and won a Pulitzer for what it found.

In one of his recent columns, Art Buchwald hit this attitude right on the head. He explained to his wife why they couldn’t accept the Fords’ invitation to go dancing at the White House: “I believe someone in the Ford Administration has it in for me. Can’t you see what this will do for me? If we go to that dinner, it will be reported in the press. Everyone will say I’ve gone in the bag for the President. My credibility as a tough, hard-driving, investigative reporter will be destroyed. People will pick up the column and say, ‘I wonder what the freeloader has to say about Mr. Ford today.’ There is no way anyone can be objective after he’s danced with the President’s wife.”

The solution is not to stay away from the White House or refuse to rent your house to Leonard Garment any more than the solution to “dirty politics” is for politicians to refuse all contributions. What the politician should be willing to do is accept whatever contributions he’s willing to answer questions about, and let the facts speak for themselves. The rest of us should feel free to enter arrangements we know are right, as long as we are willing to answer tough questions about suspicious appearances. Only if we are not willing to do that, as some people have proven they are not, must we be dogmatic about appearances.

James Fallows

James Fallows began his magazine career at the Washington Monthly in the 1970s, later serving as editor of U.S. News & World Report and as a White House speechwriter. He has written 12 books, the most recent being Our Towns, coauthored with his wife, Deborah Fallows, which was a national best-seller and the basis of a 2021 HBO documentary.