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More Scrutiny, but Not Better Leaders

By Gary Hart
Sunday, April 5, 1998; Page C04

KITTREDGE, Colo.—After considerable churning a decade or so ago, the mainstream media adopted tactics theretofore reserved for the tabloid press in its pursuit of Hollywood celebrities. This Murdochization of the establishment media soon came to be justified on the grounds that greater scrutiny of political leadership was now required to protect the American people from politicians of bad character.

Little was offered by way of constitutional or moral qualification for this new role, but the bland word "scrutiny" continues to be used to describe a brutal process now applied to virtually everyone in public life. At its worst excesses, scrutiny has included reporters hiding in bushes (including mine, in case anyone has forgotten), peeking into the windows of private residences (sometimes using telephoto lenses) and engaging in a form of character defamation -- practices usually associated with authoritarian societies.

It is cause for wonder how we managed to elect such figures of stature in pre-scrutiny days -- and how, in the Age of Scrutiny, we have elected so few. In former times, the American people, left to rely primarily on their own instincts and good judgment as to the integrity and moral qualification of those who ran for public office, seemed to do awfully well. I had the great honor to serve in a Senate that included Mike Mansfield, Jack Javits, Clifford Case, George McGovern, Charles Mathias, Ed Muskie, Hubert Humphrey, Gaylord Nelson, Adlai Stevenson, Stuart Symington, Abe Ribicoff and a substantial number of others of like caliber. I don't believe any of these leaders passed through the "scrutiny" filter. Indeed, it is awful to contemplate the wrath of any one of them had they been forced to do so.

Dismissal of the Paula Jones lawsuit leaves us, if not at a crossroads, at least in a vacuum. What will now occupy Page One and the top of the broadcast? Perhaps some new scandal will spare us the necessity of facing unamusing public-policy questions such as expansion of NATO, military reform and Social Security restructuring. We might even properly appreciate the word "scandal" by applying it to a corrupt campaign financing system or to an economic system that permits millions of American children to go without adequate food or health care. Scrutinizing these genuine scandals will not sell as many newspapers, but it will have a great deal more to do with the kind of society we leave our children and will redeem the true purpose of the First Amendment.

This temporary vacuum might also be filled by a media-led discussion of the dangers of "scrutiny," the genuine definition of character, the limits of "the public's right to know" and the means of attracting citizens of quality back to public service. Sunday morning media celebrities need anguish no more over whether they should or should not cover the president's personal travails. Cover them if you will, but use the other 50 pages of the paper or 25 minutes of the broadcast to restore proportion. Report only facts, be right instead of being first and, most of all, bring back the distinction between what may (or may not) be interesting and what is genuinely important.

It seems more than accidental that the pre-scrutiny era that gave us such a very high caliber of political leaders also produced such journalists as Bill Kovach, Tom Winship, Marvin Kalb, Sander Vanocur, David Brinkley, Bob Healy and, of course, the iconic Walter Cronkite. Perhaps the metaphoric act of peeking in windows diminishes the stature of the peeker.

Based on limited past experience, there will be those in the media more than happy to dismiss these thoughts ad hominem. "Hart Attacks the Press" is the watchword. So be it. But skins must be thick on both sides of this discussion. The author matters not. What does matter is this question: If the Age of Scrutiny is justified as imperative for screening out those of imperfect character, have we produced higher-quality leaders today as a result?

I believe, and hope, that out of President Clinton's ordeal may come instead a new age of maturity, one in which a sense of proportion between private and public, between the interesting and the important, is created. Our country has too much to do to permit itself to continue to be distracted by sensation and expose. Leaders have a duty to give the people the full measure of their judgment, their energy and their courage. Sometimes, these leaders will be less than perfect. Hopefully we can learn, as other great nations have, to live with that reality.

Gary Hart is a former U.S. senator from Colorado and author of the forthcoming book on military reform, "The Minuteman" (Free Press).

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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