Rewriting the Rules
By Howard Kurtz
"You had an affair during your first marriage," CNN's Bernard Shaw said to the Arizona senator. "The sitting president is being impeached for his conduct with Monica Lewinsky. Should a politician's private acts be part of public discourse?"
"Let me say that I am responsible for the breakup of my first marriage," McCain replied. "I will not discuss or talk about that any more than that. If someone wants to criticize me for that, that's fine."
Journalists are openly grappling with whether "have you ever" questions – involving adultery, drug use or other past embarrassments – are relevant, or at least more acceptable, in the climate fostered by the nonstop coverage of the Lewinsky story. In an increasingly tabloid media environment, no one on either side of the political fence is quite sure of the rules anymore. And even if an approved set of journalistic guidelines existed, someone would undoubtedly come along to break them.
While he can't stop reporters from asking personal questions, McCain said in an interview, "I decide what the answers are. It's one thing if you've done something illegal. I am not reluctant to say I've never used marijuana or cocaine because it's breaking the law. If you asked me if I ever drove too fast, I'll have to say yes, and I didn't wear my seat belt. But the conduct of my private life is still something I view as my own business."
Many critics contend the press has already become too intrusive, assuming a "character cop" role in investigating public officials. And in poll after poll, sizable majorities say they resent journalists who traffic in dirty laundry, and believe such reporting is driven by ratings and circulation.
But the political process is also sorting out whether admissions that once would have sunk a candidate are becoming less risky. Clinton's survival, despite the Lewinsky affair and allegations by other women, suggests that charges of adultery may pack less of a political punch than they once did.
"There's nothing else you can conclude from the Clinton story but that this doesn't matter to the American people," said Newsweek correspondent Howard Fineman. "We've all belatedly grown up about this."
The culture was very different back in 1987, when the Miami Herald staked out presidential candidate Gary Hart's Washington town house and reported on his relationship with Donna Rice. Hart refused to answer when then-Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor later asked him if he had ever committed adultery, and soon withdrew from the race.
Rumors of infidelity swirled around Vice President George Bush as he geared up to run for the top job. His son George W. Bush, now governor of Texas, felt compelled to tell Newsweek: "The answer to the Big A question is N-O."
Clinton tried to redefine the boundaries of public discourse on the subject during his 1992 campaign. In a preemptive move at a press breakfast, he acknowledged that his marriage had not been perfect. After Gennifer Flowers said they had had a 12-year affair, he denied her charges on "60 Minutes" – but acknowledged, using a sort of code language, "causing pain in my marriage."
Many news organizations consider an informal statute of limitations in making decisions. During the 1996 campaign, The Washington Post and Time decided not to report that presidential candidate Bob Dole had a long-ago affair that began in 1968; the story broke in the National Enquirer. Last fall, 57 news outlets refused to pursue allegations that Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) had an affair in the 1960s; later, the online magazine Salon went with the story.
Steve Coz, the National Enquirer's editor, said any future extramarital exposé "depends a lot on the stance of that politician. If that politician is backed by Jerry Falwell and takes the family-values route, that gets pretty legitimate. But I don't see us pot-shotting extramarital affairs just because it's juicy copy."
The revelation of Clinton's affair with a White House intern has unquestionably changed the dynamics of the 2000 campaign. William Bennett, author of "The Book of Virtues," has warned Republican presidential candidates: "If adultery is part of your baggage, forget it." The Rev. Lou Sheldon, who heads the Traditional Values Coalition, said he will ask every candidate whether he or she has committed adultery.
The purpose, Sheldon said, is to find out "if you take that oath, do you intend to keep that oath? Is that important to you? If they want to lie, it's between them and God. ... We don't want to make it like writing a bad check or a parking ticket."
In such an environment, media inquiries can't be far behind. CNN's Shaw said he asked McCain about his first marriage after reading press accounts in which the senator acknowledged his infidelity. "Each candidate's situation is different," Shaw said. "My inclination is not to snoop under the candidates' beds but to ask relevant questions about their lives." McCain "responded very succinctly, and that was more than fine with me."
Former vice president Dan Quayle was the first to confront the question last March. Asked by Washington Post columnist David Broder on "Meet the Press" whether he expected to be asked if he'd had an extramarital affair, Quayle said: "Are you going to ask that of every vice presidential candidate, every congressman, every senator? I just do not believe that that is an appropriate question that you ask a presidential candidate."
Having said that, Quayle added: "The answer in my case is no."
"The media is creating an impossible choice where a candidate is criticized no matter what they do," said Jonathan Baron, Quayle's spokesman. "If it's answered, the candidate gets accused of lowering the standard of decency for everyone else and allowing the media to become even more intrusive in the private lives of public officials. If a candidate attempts to fight that trend and not answer the question, the media will speculate about why the question wasn't answered and is that indicative of a larger problem. It's a no-win situation."
Dilemma or not, some candidates regard such interrogations as inevitable. "My complaining isn't going to stop it," said billionaire publisher Steve Forbes, who sought the White House in 1996 and is expected to run again. "One of the unfortunate legacies of Clinton's reckless behavior is it has degraded the public square. Voters are wise enough not to have a checklist, but they are going to try to get a feel for a person's character." Forbes added that there is "no soap opera stuff" in his background.
Attitudes toward homosexuality also have evolved. In 1987, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) agonized before telling the Boston Globe he is gay but was easily reelected. In 1996, Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) made a similar disclosure without paying a political price. But both men were already in office. In November, Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Bald win became the first openly gay person elected to Congress.
So far, at least, there has been no whispering campaign about past indiscretions by Vice President Gore. But Gore has already been through a cultural shift in attitudes toward past drug use.
In 1987, Supreme Court nominee Douglas Ginsburg was forced to withdraw after acknowledging that he had smoked marijuana while he was a Harvard law professor. Gore, then a Tennessee senator running for president, quickly admitted having tried pot, as did presidential candidate Bruce Babbitt, then-Rep. Newt Gingrich and other politicians.
By 1991, when Clarence Thomas acknowledged having tried marijuana, it was a non-issue in his Supreme Court nomination. And the only controversy over candidate Bill Clinton's admission the following year involved his claim that he didn't inhale.
More than any other potential 2000 candidate, Gov. Bush has faced questions about the hard-partying days of his youth and the possibility of embarrassing revelations to come. In a Newsweek piece in November, Bush said he had been "young and irresponsible" but declined to say whether he had ever used drugs. He added, however, that "I've been loyal to my wife."
"I hope the press would exercise some restraint in what they choose to ask," said Karen Hughes, Bush's spokeswoman. "We've been asked every question under the sun, probably a dozen times. I was asked whether the governor's ever murdered someone." She said that question, based on an Internet rumor, came from "a very credible reporter for a major Texas newspaper."
Fineman, who wrote the Newsweek story, said he had to ask about Bush's personal behavior because it may become a campaign controversy. "I suppose you could argue that's getting it in through the back door," he said. "But there's a difference between raising it and dwelling on it or obsessing about it." Most readers and viewers, Fineman said, "would like us all to go jump in the lake" for quizzing public officials about sex.
But such questions keep popping up, in part because journalists often get caught up in the campaign cycle of charge and countercharge, or the fear that someone else might break the story. Bush got a taste of this when he, like McCain, was interviewed on last week's special produced by CNN and WMUR-TV of New Hampshire. WMUR reporter Steve Cooper zeroed in on the governor's past:
"Is there any lapse in judgment in your personal life that would make you think twice about running for president?"
"What about alcohol?"
"Have you ever used drugs? Marijuana, cocaine?"
While Bush admitted that he quit drinking years ago – "I was drinking too much at times" – he again declined to discuss drugs. "I'm not going to talk about what I did as a child. ... It is irrelevant what I did 20 to 30 years ago," he said. "What's relevant is that I have learned from any mistakes that I made. I do not want to send signals to anybody that what Governor Bush did 30 years ago is cool to try."
Cooper said it is part of his job to ask about "not just the public issues, but other issues that some might consider private issues. When there are stories out there, whether they're true or false, I'm certainly going to ask tough questions. It gives any candidate the opportunity to set the record straight."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company