A story told on the diplomatic circuit involves a married French diplomat who had an affair in Moscow with a female KGB agent. One day, her dour boss appeared at the Frenchman's doorstep with the usual scandalous pictures -- a prelude to a blackmail demand. The diplomat studied the photos for a moment and then said, "I will take two of zees, three of zees and one of zees" -- and with a nonchalant shrug closed the door.
Americans have no such blase' attitude toward extra-marital sex. Accusations of such shenanigans tumbled Gary Hart from his perch as the Democratic front-runner to just another guy peddling a book in New York. Now such a charge has been leveled by the Cleveland Plain Dealer against Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste. It said Celeste (married 25 years) had been "romantically linked" to three other women. The governor, a possible presidential candidate (who isn't?), has said, in effect, that his alleged affairs are his own affair and will say nothing further.
Celeste is the second victim this spring of the press's new clean-up campaign. As if to show that it was not playing favorites with Hart, some reporters have quizzed other candidates about their private lives, and The New York Times has sent presidential hopefuls a questionnaire asking, among other things, their views on adultery. (None of them has yet taken a position in favor.)
In Washington, Jesse Jackson, possibly intent on talking about other matters, spent part of a press breakfast rebutting "rumors" that he, too, has had his innings. As behooves a presidential candidate and minister, he pronounced adultery immoral but then appended the thought that sexual and racial discrimination are also immoral. Yes, but hardly as interesting.
Enough! In the first place, no public figure should be questioned publicly about rumors that he has had an affair. In this of all areas, the press ought to have the highest standards: you either have the facts or you don't. Asking a presidential candidate about rumors only spreads the rumors. This amounts to a kind of sexual McCarthyism -- are you now, or have you ever been, involved in an extra-marital affair? Merely to clam up, to cite personal privacy, turns the candidate into a Fifth Amendment philanderer. This is a sordid abuse of press power -- demeaning to candidates and demeaning to the press as well.
But what if the press has the facts? Should it publish them? The answer is: it depends. In Hart's case, the story of his alleged infidelity with Donna Rice had a context. Hart had already been accused of flaky behavior, of inexplicably changing his age and name. He had twice separated from his wife, Lee, and there were suspicions that their reconciliation was a sham. In addition, he and Rice seem to have been photographed boarding the boat "Monkey Business" by every tourist in South Florida.
But having broken precedent with the Hart story, the press seems to have abandoned its germaneness rule altogether. Some journalists and newspapers no longer seem to hold that an indisputable connection must be made between the candidate's private life and his public one. Merely saying the public has a right to know is not enough. We have more than enough information now to suggest that such information is usually worthless.
The presumed affair of Dwight D. Eisenhower gives us no reason to reassess either his generalship during World War II or his subsequent presidency. The episode seems to be totally discrete -- without bearing on what, after all, should concern us: his presidency. The same is true for Franklin D. Roosevelt or, even, John F. Kennedy -- although his escapade with the mob-linked Judith Exner raises grave questions of judgment.
America is not France. Revelations of an extra-marital affair are explosive. They can ruin an otherwise promising career and inflict great pain on the people involved. There are times when such news is germane, but they are rare. Maybe that assessment should always be left to the reader, but because either space (in print) or time (in television) is limited, editors or producers make that for them. Recently, some journalists -- either by the questions they ask or the stories they print -- have abdicated their professional responsibility. That, in the end, may turn out to be the biggest scandal of all.