Private Sin, Public Matter

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Forgive me if I opt out of the "whatever happened to privacy" pity party that's convened in the aftermath of the Sen. David Vitter sex scandal.

The arc of the press reaction to these episodes echoes the acts themselves -- first comes the fun, then the regret.

The fun is self-evident, and the story of the Louisiana senator is especially delectable: the sanctimonious family-values politician caught with his hypocrisy showing. Vitter -- the man who called for President Bill Clinton to resign because he was "morally unfit to govern" -- was back at work yesterday, a week after he was linked to a D.C. escort service.

The regret, this time around, has been expressed by two of my fellow columnists, E.J. Dionne Jr. and David Ignatius.

Dionne offered a " qualified defense" of Vitter. A "big part of me is rooting for Vitter to survive because I so want to return to a time when we . . . chose to pay little attention to the extracurricular sexual activities of our politicians," he wrote.

Ignatius followed with a musing about the sadly diminished right to privacy. "Well, fine, you say, Vitter is a noisy 'family values' conservative, who should be indicted for hypocrisy if nothing else," he wrote. "But what about the thousands of other people whose phone numbers are on the D.C. Madam's call list?" he asked. "Are they fair game?"

My colleagues left out one key fact: This isn't just a moral transgression. If Vitter cheated on his wife, that would be a private matter of seeking, as he put it, "forgiveness from God and my wife."

But Vitter didn't just cop to a "very serious sin." It's a fair inference that he committed a crime. Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the "D.C. Madam" in whose phone records Vitter's number turned up, is facing federal charges of running a prostitution ring.

Do my colleagues bemoaning the loss of privacy think those charges should be dropped? Dionne says we should "grant Vitter our collective absolution and move on." Does he want to do the same for Palfrey? What makes Palfrey "fair game" for prosecutors, in Ignatius's words, but puts her client list off-limits?

Perhaps my colleagues are sexual supply-siders, uninterested in the demand part of the prostitution equation.

U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler got the point when she allowed Palfrey to make her phone records public. Kessler wondered why prosecutors "exhibited such a strong interest in protecting a list containing the telephone numbers of unindicted co-conspirators."

There is a huge difference, one that seems to have gotten lost in all the Vitter discussion, between having extramarital sex and paying for it. I'm not in any way condoning the former, but I have a much bigger problem with the latter.

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