PARIS -- Two photographs published in Europe this week have altered the perception here of the Gary Hart case. The tawdriness and stupidity of the caper that felled Hart are finally conveyed in the images of him balancing Donna Rice on his knee and mugging for the camera aboard the good ship Monkey Business.
Until now, European politicians, journalists and others have tended to see Hart as the victim of an overly powerful and inquisitive press. They have professed shock not over Hart's Saturday night and Sunday morning with Rice, but over America's apparent moral hypocrisy in singling out one politician for punishment for a human, forgivable foible.
"If we used the same standards, we would not have been able to have three of our past four presidents, who were good presidents," an indignant Frenchman said shortly after Hart withdrew. Endorsing the curtain of discretion that European newspapers draw around the sex lives of the politically prominent, he added: "And we all know that at least two West German chancellors would have flunked such a morality code. Can we be blamed for wondering if America is a serious country?"
"It is just not the same culture," Francois Leotard, France's minister of culture, told a questioner last week. If French media emulated The Miami Herald's approach to political reporting, "No French politician could withstand it."
(It is necessary to except Britain from this description of European reactions, since Fleet Street has long since made kissing and telling a lucrative public pastime. The ability of Rice to cash in on her sudden notoriety suggests that we Americans are simply catching up with our British cousins in such prurient behavior, exercised in our case through Playboy, Penthouse or "Miami Vice" rather than through the tabloids in London.)
What are the cultural differences that divide Europe and the United States on the interplay of public morality, sex and the independence of the press when it comes to examining the private lives of politicians?
It is partly a matter of cynicism on the part of Europeans, asserts Christine Ockrent, France's most prominent television journalist. "Nobody here believes that lying is a sin, or that it is even a mistake. And besides, the French think they are great lovers, so anything to do with sex is a plus," not something to be exposed as scandal.
It is also a matter of politics. Europe's newspapers, magazines and radio and television networks remain to a surprising extent supported by subsidies from political parties or by governments through tax breaks or direct funding. They are party to the tacit understandings among the political leaders themselves that private lives are out of bounds in political warfare.
Themselves part of "the political class" in a way their American counterparts have not traditionally been, journalists follow the convention from necessity and as a matter of personal taste. They sense that if they were to ask a politician about his record on adultery, their own private lives and that of their editors would quickly become fair game for public inquiry and disclosure. They have found it difficult to understand how Hart could appear to be so helpless in a direct confrontation with journalists.
But the Monkey Business Photo Archives have shifted the focus of reaction here, swinging it away from an automatic assumption that the U.S. media conducted a politically inspired lynching for the benefit of a puritanical American public and on to the ex-presidential candidate's own poor judgment. Posing for sappy photos at a time when he was insisting that he was so happily married sharply diminishes Hart's standing as victim in worldly wise European eyes.
The growing move in Europe, and in France in particular, to encourage private ownership of television and radio broadcasting networks is clearly causing concern among politicians about the future. For them, the outcome of the Hart case outweighs the fine points about who should have been shocked by what. For former prime minister Raymond Barre the question is nothing less than whether "the fourth estate has not become so powerful that it is hindering the normal working of the other three."
This view of an all-powerful media is largely a myth imported from the United States, French writer Jean-Francois Revel responds, "but the politicians believe it, the public also, and the journalists in the media even more. The fundamental fact is that they are now all adapting their behavior to this mirage and thus turning it into a reality."