Recently, two stories of misdeeds in high places were told to the world. The first said that the White House chief of staff, John Sununu, had been using government planes for private trips.
Immediately, the machinery for the exposure and rectification of wrongdoing swung into action, in just the way the Founding Fathers no doubt hoped it would when they built much of this machinery into the Constitution.The press probed. The checks and balances in government checked and balanced. The opposition party opposed.
The Washington Post broke the story. That very day it was taken up by television news. Democratic congressmen stepped boldly up to microphones to express their indignation and protect the public weal.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., chairman of the House Government Operations Committee, requested that the General Accounting Office investigate. A cute name was found for the scandal: Sununu's "Frequent Flier Program."
Sununu has an abrasive personality, so animus assisted high moral principle in fueling the scandal. The pressure for more information rose. The White House, yielding to it, issued a report.
The press's appetite for this report itself became a story: One television program showed reporters lined up at the White House to get copies.
It was "the night of the long knives," said Forrest Sawyer of ABC News, which displayed a shot of Sununu's face half-covered by a tree branch in the foreground, making it look as if he were physically hiding, like a child, from his supposed guilt.
It's already clear that some action - an executive order or minor piece of legislation - will be taken to deal with the problem. When that happens, justice (we can hope) will have been done, and all will be well.
The other story said that William Casey, the director of former President Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign, had traveled three times to Europe to meet with representatives of Iran, and had struck a deal to delay the release of the American hostages until after the election (the better to ensure the defeat of former President Carter) in exchange for deliveries of American arms once Reagan was in power.
The charges, made in The New York Times by Gary Sick, a National Security Council staffer under Carter, and by the television program "Frontline," included allegations that vice-presidential candidate George Bush had been present at a Paris meeting, although Sick declared himself undecided on the truth of this explosive detail.
When these charges were made, the institutions that had leaped so promptly into action to get to the bottom of the Frequent Flier scandal were strangely paralyzed. The congressional leadership was silent. No committee stirred.
The White House denied the charges but did not release campaign documents from 1980 that might prove Bush and others were in the United States at the time of the Paris meeting.
Requests by reporters to see these documents, which are at the Hoover Institute in California, under the control of the former attorney general, Ed Meese, have been refused.
The press, too, was comparatively quiet. Few TV discussion shows discussed it. No camera pursued the witnesses or showed us their faces concealed behind tree branches. No cute name for the scandal was coined.
The reports did not lead to indignation, the indignation did not lead to further investigation, further investigation did not lead to further disclosure, further disclosure did not lead to action, and no resolution of the question is in sight, whether to clear the air of false charges or to confirm them.
In the Frequent Flier scandal, the stakes are some millions of the taxpayers' dollars. In the hostage-deal scandal, the stake is the integrity of the nation's foreign policy and of its electoral process - that is, of the constitutional system.
One day historians will hold us to account for our stewardship of American democracy. In their annals, the silence that has greeted the hostage deal is likely to speak louder than even the noisiest protests about the plane rides of John Sununu.
(Jonathen Schell is a Newsday columnist.)