Strange Bedfellow

Adultery and Boredom

The new rules about politicians screwing around.

We now know what Gary Hart did wrong. He got caught cheating on his wife a decade too early. In 1987, when Hart embarked on the Monkey Business with Donna Rice, public exposure of infidelity was a career-wrecker. Today, the episode would play out differently. Hart’s adultery would get reported, but the nation would yawn. The story would vanish quickly from the news, and all the pundits would say that Hart’s wandering eye was less important than his expertise on weapons procurement.

That, at least, is the revised scenario suggested by the two sex scandals that broke last week. Reputable publications reported that the president of the United States and the mayor of New York City were actively unfaithful spouses–and no one cared. According to a New York Daily News poll, 85 percent of those surveyed said that charges in a Vanity Fair article that Rudy Giuliani was having an affair with his communications director would have no impact on how they voted. Only 7 percent said the information would make them less likely to vote for Giuliani. There has been no comparable poll about Newsweek’s report that Clinton “fondled” a woman named Kathleen Willey during a 1993 job interview in his office. But there is no sign of harm to the president’s approval rating, which continues to hover in the low 60s. Ten years ago, both these stories would have launched full-dress feeding frenzies, which as likely as not would have chewed up successful politicians and spat them out onto the refuse heap.

Now such stories don’t even rate as scandals. They mainly provoke orgies of media self-examination, which usually take the form of reporters who got scooped beating up those who broke the story. As ever before, it was amusing to watch the prestigious media organs resist temptation as best they could, only to yield hypocritically a few days later. When Vanity Fair broke the Giuliani story, the New York Times characteristically turned up its nose, printing only a brief mention of Giuliani’s denial on Page B4. A few days later, “Metro” columnist Clyde Haberman slipped more detail in under the guise of discussing whether the mayor was spending too much time at the office. “When you think about it, the most interesting part of this flapdoodle over the state of the union at Gracie Mansion is what it tells us about Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s frenetic work habits,” Haberman wrote, implausibly. The Washington Post gave similar backdoor treatment to the Willey affair, mentioning it only in the context of Willey being subpoenaed by Paula Jones’ lawyers. The Post subsequently covered it in much greater detail as a press story about how Matt Drudge, who publishes an Internet tip sheet, scooped Newsweek by reporting what the magazine was about to report.

The Drudge angle is significant. By reporting gossip about gossip, Drudge has single-handedly lowered the bar for what constitutes “news.” A few days ago, he reported a rumor that Sidney Blumenthal, a former journalist who is now a Clinton official, was once accused in court filings of “spousal abuse.” This was utterly false, and Drudge retracted it under threat of a lawsuit. But all this was reported in the Post and elsewhere, putting the falsehood into wider circulation. As the supermarket tabloids have shown, the ethical standard of the bottom-feeding publication is the one that ultimately prevails. Once something is published by anyone, it becomes fair game for analysis and repetition. Irresponsible, inaccurate postings on the Internet are now a back door for stories that don’t even meet the standards of the tabloids.

B ut as the standards of journalistic legitimacy have declined, the formerly godlike power of the establishment media to decide whether politicians will live or die has also diminished. In the Gary Hart days, the Times and Post were inclined to withhold information about the personal lives of politicians on the assumption that readers couldn’t handle it. While sophisticated journalists might understand that an extramarital affair wasn’t such a big deal, the public at large was too bigoted and judgmental to put such information in proper perspective. A frequent lament by columnists from that era was that the United States wasn’t like France or Britain, where politicians’ sex lives were considered their own business.

That attitude was condescending and undemocratic. If voters considered all Ten Commandments pertinent to their decision about whom to vote for, the New York Times had no business suppressing information about one that it thought was OK. But on the evidence of the most recent cases, the folks in flyover country have grown more worldly than big-city journalists give them credit for. While people may be extremely interested in details about any famous person’s sex life, they don’t deem that information particularly useful or relevant when casting their votes. In one 1994 Harris poll, 71 percent said it was none of their business whether Bill Clinton had been unfaithful to his wife. In 1992 and 1996, the election results suggested that they were telling the truth about how they felt.

Admittedly, New York City is not South Carolina, and information that might not harm a Democratic president could still destroy a Republican governor. In Clinton’s case, everyone has fully assimilated the notion of the president as an adulterer, or worse. An added datum weighs far less than does a novel accusation against someone previously considered a good family man. But something clearly has changed. Even conservative Republicans, like Trent Lott, now hesitate to make blanket condemnations of adultery. Ironically, while the press in Britain and France has moved toward an American standard of private-life investigation over the last decade, the American public seems to have evolved a more European attitude. We’re more concerned about politicians’ performance in office than about the condition of their marriage vows.

This new maturity argues not for an advance, but for a retreat on the part of the press. If voters don’t deem personal lives politically relevant, there’s no justification for reporters invading people’s privacy to find out about them. This open-ended assault by the press is one of the main factors driving many of the people we want in public life away from public life. And if the public doesn’t think adultery matters, the press is exploiting politicians merely for its own aggrandizement. One Newsweek columnist suggested this week that the Vanity Fair story was defective, among other reasons, because its evidence fell short of the photographic. But getting better evidence means even more disagreeable snooping, à la Gary Hart. What journalists need is a stricter standard of relevance, not a higher burden of proof.

One might make a case that the latest sex stories are relevant just the same. According to Vanity Fair, several members of Giuliani’s inner circle have broken with him over a spokeswoman the mayor values for more than her spin. It was getting absurd for reporters to analyze developments at City Hall without referring to a romantic attachment they believed to be a key force in events. In the Willey case, appointment to a federal board and a trip to a conference in Indonesia raise the question of whether the president misused government resources. But reporters can always find pretexts of one kind or another: that the person is a hypocrite, is lying about it, is doing it on government time, or–the old standby–that the issue raises questions of “character.” It’s time to quit fishing. When it comes to simple adultery, journalists should listen to the voters. If they don’t care, there’s no reason why we should, either.