By Howard Kurtz
Days after she began airing commercials urging President Clinton to resign over his affair with a White House intern, Idaho Rep. Helen Chenoweth yesterday acknowledged a long-term affair with a married man in the 1980s.
The two-term Republican's admission to the Idaho Statesman is the latest sign that the Monica Lewinsky imbroglio has transformed the media and political culture, opening the floodgates to the sort of sexual investigations that the press once largely avoided.
"Fourteen years ago, when I was a private citizen and a single woman, I was involved in a relationship that I came to regret, that I'm not proud of. . . . This was in my past, and I'm very sorry," Chenoweth, 60, said in a statement yesterday. "‚. . . I very much regret that this once-private episode is now causing our families pain once more."
In her television ads against Democratic challenger Dan Williams, Chenoweth says: "Bill Clinton's behavior has severely rocked this nation and damaged the office of the president. I believe that personal conduct and integrity does matter."
Chenoweth's admission comes six days after Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) acknowledged to the Indianapolis Star and News that he fathered a son during an extramarital affair in the early 1980s. In both cases, the lawmakers confessed to long-rumored conduct once it was clear their local papers would be publishing stories about it. And in both cases, editors said their decision was justified by public hypocrisy.
"We've heard reports about this for several years and we had decided it was not a story, was not an issue, until she made it an issue with her TV commercials," said Karen Baker, the Statesman's editor. "That makes it newsworthy in my mind.
"When this ad started airing, people were starting to talk and we decided we had to hold her accountable. She has run on the issues of family values and morality, and she chose to make personal conduct an issue with this latest commercial."
Chenoweth made no attempt to tie the Statesman article to her political opponents. Burton, by contrast, complained that the White House was encouraging stories about his private life in retaliation for his House investigation of Democratic fund-raising abuses, a charge the administration flatly denied. But reports persist that some White House allies are embracing a so-called "scorched earth" strategy against Republican critics as Congress weighs impeachment hearings over the Lewinsky matter.
Chenoweth's six-year affair was with a longtime business partner. Vern Ravenscroft, 78, a former state legislator and onetime candidate for governor, also acknowledged the affair to the Statesman, saying it ended 14 years ago.
Harriett Ravenscroft, his wife of 57 years, told the paper that Chenoweth was responsible for the affair. "They were business partners, yes, and it went beyond that and it shouldn't have," she said. "I want it forgotten and put behind us. I don't see how Helen can live with herself and do this."
Democrats were quick to seize the issue. "There is a glass house syndrome going on around here," said Peter Fenn, a consultant to challenger Williams. "I find it extraordinary that people like Burton or Chenoweth would do these kinds of things knowing full well the skeletons will come crashing out of their closets."
Williams, however, took the high road, saying, "People out here want to hear about real problems that affect their daily lives far more than anyone's personal life."
Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and a Bush White House aide, said, "I'm not at all convinced it helps Clinton to have the Burton and Chenoweth stories come out. Republicans have old-fashioned extramarital affairs with other adults. Those really are moral lapses that are private and more easily forgiven and very different from taking advantage of a young person who works for you when you're president."
Media critics, meanwhile, are disturbed. "I fear it is out of control," said James Naughton, president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. The mere fact that an officeholder has criticized a president under criminal investigation, he said, "is way too low a threshold to get into these arenas. I don't think that's the role of American journalism."
Ironically, Chenoweth won her seat in 1994 by defeating incumbent Larry LaRocco a week after he acknowledged that his earlier denials of an extramarital affair had been false. Chenoweth did not personally make an issue of the affair.
The conservative congresswoman has been one of Clinton's harshest critics. She signed onto a House resolution for an impeachment inquiry last November, when the fund-raising probe was the major political issue. She called on the president to resign after his Aug. 17 admission of an affair with Lewinsky, saying, "Americans feel we really deserve so much better from our president than to lower himself to this sort of sordid spectacle. . . . He's abdicated the moral authority that was entrusted to him."
Asked about the difference between Chenoweth's affair and Clinton's, Chad Hyslop, her spokesman, said: "Helen has never taken issue with what the president has done on this sexual scandal issue. What she has addressed is his lying about it."
In her statement, Chenoweth said: "As recent events show, character in public officials does matter. I made a mistake, I acknowledged that mistake at the time. . . . I asked forgiveness. And I have moved on with my life."
Mark Mendiola, assistant managing editor of the Idaho State Journal, said he would engage in "a lot of soul-searching" before breaking such a story. But, he said, "Chenoweth has made such a big deal of family values over the years."
Said Baker, the Statesman editor: "It wasn't an easy decision. I wish we didn't have to do the story because it's unpleasant."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company