Senior campaign aides for Vice President George Bush and Sen. Robert Dole said yesterday that the two Republican presidential candidates have held a private summit about sexual innuendo and how to control it.
For several weeks, unsubstantiated rumors that Bush has violated the Sixth Commandment (the one about adultery) have wafted through political society and into print. The vice president's son George Jr. stepped forward last week to reveal that his father had confided his innocence. "The answer to the Big A question is N-O," declared the younger Bush. In the meantime, Bush campaign director Lee Atwater accused Dole campaign consultant David Keene of circulating the rumor. Keene countered on a television talk show that Atwater was "a liar."
Now the candidates have decided, according to Atwater, to "keep to the 11th Commandment": Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.
"We hope this campaign will be decided on the issues," said Keene.
According to the apparent terms of the summit agreement, reached sometime in the previous 48 hours, the Dole people didn't spread any rumors and promise not to do it again. And the Bush people haven't spread rumors about the Dole people spreading rumors and won't do it again.
"Isn't that nice?" said William Schneider, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and syndicated columnist. "Sweet reason reigns."
This sexual summitry was revealed at a forum sponsored by The Atlantic at the National Press Club, moderated by Schneider.
Along with Atwater and Keene, the participants included Ed Rollins, former White House political director and chairman of Rep. Jack Kemp's presidential campaign, and Howard Phillips, president of the Conservative Caucus.
While the discussion ranged from the potential effects of the Iran-contra scandal on Republican prospects to the potential effects of a late-breaking arms control agreement, the political operatives appeared most concerned with murmurings about the secret lives of the candidates.
In a surge of enthusiastic unanimity, all of them traced the source of the trouble to the man who's dropped out of the race: Gary Hart. The Hart-Donna Rice episode, they argued, had set a standard for sexual probity that really applied only to him.
"Hart was viewed as a phony in every aspect of his career," said Keene.
"Gary Hart set himself up," said Atwater.
But when it comes to press scrutiny, what applied to Hart shouldn't necessarily apply to their candidates. "Even a candidate for president is entitled to a private life," said Atwater.
Phillips offered a cautionary dictum: "Anyone who is seeking the presidency who is deficient on character should reconsider."
Rollins blamed Hart for political stupidity more than moral cupidity. "Hart was not knocked out of the race because he was a womanizer," he said. "He lied about it." All presidential aspirants, Rollins suggested, should "confess to themselves" before announcing. "Anything they have ever done, the chances of that getting out are pretty high. If they want to debate it in the front pages of The New York Times or The Washington Post, then be my guest."
But sexual rumors by their nature, Keene said, are "unfair to candidates, irrelevant to the discussion." Except for the "unique" Hart case, of course.
Keene labeled a request from The New York Times for personal data from the candidates "unseemly and tacky."
"The National Enquirer turned out to have higher ethics than The Times," Keene gibed. (Since dispensing the written questionnaire, The Times has dropped its request for certain kinds of information, including raw FBI files and some medical records.)
"The great tragedy of this last week," said Rollins, "is that people had some very uncomfortable times who didn't deserve it."
Now, by mutual agreement of the vice president and the Senate minority leader, there will be no more dealing in rumors about sex or rumors about rumors about sex.