WE'VE PRETTY MUCH said what we have to say in this space about Gary Hart and Donna Rice and all that; and none of the former senator's elaborations the other night on Ted Koppel's program persuades us that there was more (or, more precisely, less) to the episode than we and others concluded at the time. Mr. Hart did raise the question of privacy for politicians, though, in a way that invites further thought. He said that the media's assault on the private lives of candidates had become a negative factor in people's decisions whether to run, and that this consideration was actually threatening to deprive the country of some good contenders for high office.
On this point he is surely right. We persist in thinking that Gary Hart himself was not the victim of some unjust intrusion into his private life, but rather that a general way of life and a thoroughly cynical untruthfulness about it were the issue in his case. But it is undeniable that other would-be candidates, who do not have a lot to hide from the public, nonetheless justly fear the overwhelming and unrelenting attention of the press to themselves and their families that is ignited by a campaign for president. This has been part of the explanation of some of those who have chosen not to run this year, and there is no reason to doubt its authenticity. It must be particularly painful, as Sen. Hart said, to see the price that one's family -- kids especially -- pay in this regard for a parent's political ambition.
There are three things to be said about all this. One is that there is, of course, nothing new in the fact that wives, husbands, children, siblings and parents of those intrepid enough to run for political office are put at risk by the process. Perfectly dreadful and largely untrue things of the most personal and scurrilous kind have been alleged about the candidate's kin at least since the founding of the republic, and it would be foolish to suppose that this practice will ever be brought to an end.
The second thing to be said, however, is that we of the media could surely take some steps to improve matters. People in the press can rightly argue that Gary Hart's private life was not written about for years while rumors abounded, that it was almost by accident that this widespread rule of discretion where he was concerned was breached. But there is a privacy question concerning the amount and intensity of the scrutiny we beam on the lives of a public figure's family, the restraint and discrimination we employ in bringing up things in their lives that can embarrass and hurt to no particular public end, and the extent to which we permit some of them hardly to function any longer as normal people at all. Editors and publishers could do worse than to think about these things and to seek ways of improving the practices of their own organizations.
The third point flows from the second. It is that public figures, most particularly candidates for national office, have in effect invited and encouraged much of the unwanted attention of which they now complain. They have done this by putting ever more stress on precisely those aspects of their lives they wish, simultaneously, to shield from rigorous journalistic inquiry. In the age of television, advertising and a hundred and one ways in print and on film and tape to promote an image, candidates have taken increasingly to selling pictures of themselves in folksy outfits and "real-life" surroundings, to marketing images of themselves and their families -- as distinct from arguing their case -- and by doing this they have made fair game of the picture of themselves they are trying to promote. It was they, not thepress, who brought those little kids into the political picture in the first place and who contrived to have themselves perceived as individuals of certain habits and tastes and skills. All that they put forward in this way as candidates, all that they seek to exploit for their own political purposes, is rightly subject to the journalist's questions: Is it authentic? Is it as it is being portrayed?
Political candidates, in other words, have done plenty to compromise their own privacy and dignity in these matters. Some part of the problem -- and the remedy -- lies with them.