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Livingston Rejected GOP Advice

Incoming House Speaker Bob Livingston House Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.) on Capitol Hill Friday. (AP)

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  • By Eric Pianin
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, December 19, 1998; Page A1

    In announcing that he had occasionally "strayed from my marriage," House Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.) rejected the advice of other senior Republicans and agreed with his wife to disclose the affairs immediately, according to congressional GOP sources.

    The timing of the announcement Thursday, on the eve of the debate on the impeachment of President Clinton over the alleged lies about his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, troubled some GOP leaders. The disclosure also angered a handful of conservatives and moderates who believe he should have confessed before he ran for speaker last month.

    "It was a total blind side," Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.), a prominent conservative, said yesterday. "I'm disappointed he didn't tell us before."

    A day after an announcement that stunned his colleagues and friends in Washington and Louisiana, Livingston declined to comment further on the controversy and sat with friends in the back benches of the House chamber during the morning debate over impeachment.

    He continued to maintain solid support among most GOP members and appears headed for easy election next month to succeed Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) as speaker. An aide said Republicans have been "incredibly supportive" and that many are saying: "Let's get back to business."

    But down the road, the embarrassing news that he had conducted a series of sexual relationships over the years could cause Livingston problems, especially with conservatives who were crucial to his assent. "Out of 226 Republicans in the House, there ought to be a man or woman who has been faithful to his or her spouse all the way, and who is in fact a role model," the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a conservative leader, said on CNBC.

    Livingston, 55, made his disclosure in a series of meetings Thursday with other leaders, rank-and-file Republicans and Gingrich after being tipped off by a Louisiana political associate the day before that Hustler magazine was preparing a story about his extramarital relationships.

    Hustler publisher Larry Flynt said in an interview yesterday that four women have come forward to say they had been involved with Livingston, one in the past three to four years. He said their stories are being carefully double-checked and will be made public, on the Internet and perhaps in Hustler, shortly after Jan. 1. Hustler is investigating charges of infidelity involving about a dozen members of Congress and senior government officials, he said.

    Some GOP leaders and political operatives were baffled that Livingston chose to make his disclosure the same day the GOP and Democrats were locked in a bitter fight over whether to proceed with the impeachment vote while U.S. forces were still attacking Iraq. Because he gave advance warning to top GOP leaders and to a few close friends, including Gingrich and Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), the Capitol was rampant with rumors before Livingston made his formal announcement and the networks had plenty of time to get the story on their evening news programs.

    Livingston was counseled by some to sit tight until they had time to better gauge whether publication of the Hustler expose was imminent and to devise a strategy for containing the political damage, according to GOP sources. But Livingston's wife, Bonnie, insisted that he make the announcement immediately, to get out in front of any possible damaging report, and Livingston disregarded the GOP advice.

    In his statement, the new speaker said that "I have on occasion strayed from my marriage and in doing so nearly cost me my marriage and family." He and his wife have been married for 33 years and have four grown children.

    Livingston was given a standing ovation by the House Republican Conference Thursday evening after he divulged his affairs, and yesterday many members went out of their way to make public their affection for the incoming speaker and to offer words of encouragement.

    "I think the contrast between Bob's admission and telling the truth about this . . . and the president's lying under oath and to the American people about his transgressions is profound," said Rep. John Edward Porter (R-Ill.).

    Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.), who sat next to Livingston during the morning debate on impeachment, said he told the speaker that "we're inside your skin."

    Democrats, for their part, saw little value in attacking the speaker while he was vulnerable and scrupulously avoided any negative comments. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) drew applause from both sides of the aisle when he declared: "The politics of smear and slash-and-burn must end."

    And Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) told reporters: "It reminds me of [Dwight D.] Eisenhower being asked to comment on Nixon's achievement if you give me a week, maybe I'll think of something that interests me less than Bob Livingston's sex life."

    But some GOP conservatives reacted angrily to Livingston's admission, suggesting that he may have problems down the road with the wing of the party that was crucial in elevating him to speaker. Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) complained during an appearance on CNN's "Crossfire" Thursday night: "The bottom line is Livingston lied. He lied to his wife."

    Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said: "A man who will break his oath to God, his wife and the assembled witness is likely to break his oath of office."

    The Christian right was by no means unanimous in voicing a negative judgement on Livingston. Leaders of both the Christian Coalition and the Concerned Women for America, for example, said they were generally supportive, as long as Livingston can make a convincing case that he is now committed to his wife and family, and acknowledges his past failings.

    Randy Tate, executive director of the Christian Coalition, said he was "disappointed to learn that Livingston has been disloyal to his wife and family, but heartened that he has sought forgiveness and openly confessed his involvement."

    "If Bill Clinton demonstrated the courage of Bob Livingston, there would be no impeachment today," he said.

    Many of Livingston's friends said yesterday that they were shocked and saddened by his disclosure.

    Henson Moore, for years a fellow Louisiana Republican congressman, said he had never had any indication that Livingston was anything but the "absolute straight arrow" he seemed to be.

    "I accused the person who was calling and telling me about it of trying to pull some kind of a joke," said Moore, now president of the American Forest and Paper Association. "I would have picked him as the last one I knew to have been guilty of something like that."

    However, some Louisiana political insiders said knowledge of Livingston's extramarital activities, while not widespread, was not a secret, either.

    While none would speak on the record, several Louisianians whose work involves them deeply in the state's politics said they had been aware of Livingston's affairs and claimed to know at least one of the women with whom he had had a relationship.

    Flynt, the Hustler publisher who offered a $1 million bounty for information about the sexual antics of members of Congress, said he has hired an unspecified private detective firm in Washington to verify the alleged mistresses' stories. Responding to GOP allegations that the White House was somehow behind the investigation of Livingston's sexual relations, Flynt said: "I can assure you I've had no contact with the White House."

    Staff writers Thomas B. Edsall, George Hager and Howard Kurtz contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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