We all know–supposedly–that if John F. Kennedy were president today, he wouldn’t be. His administration would have collapsed under the relentless reporting of his dalliances with actresses such as Marilyn Monroe and Angie Dickinson, unsavory characters such as mob moll Judith Campbell Exner, suspected East German spy Ellen Rometsch, and twentysomething White House staffers known as Fiddle and Faddle. Back in the 1960s, the men’s club of reporters dined out on rumors of Kennedy’s adultery as they made sure those stories were kept out of the newspapers. “We knew. We all knew,” said former journalist and LBJ aide George Reedy in historian Thomas Reeves’ book on Kennedy, A Question of Character. (Answer to the Question: rotten.)
But it has become a journalistic truism that the club has been disbanded, that today the press would pursue rumors of flagrant infidelity by a president. As Joseph Lelyveld, executive editor of The New York Times, recently told The New York Observer, “[I]t was always clear that given [Clinton’s] alleged history, reckless philandering in the White House would be a story.”
F or proof one only has to look at the scandal that has engulfed the administration, right? Yet something nags about the story of the (yes, yes,) alleged affair between Clinton and his very own Fiddle, Monica Lewinsky. If such behavior is a legitimate story, why has it taken six years to find out that Clinton’s rapacious sexual appetite has apparently never been slaked but simply changed venue? During this time the press has surely had as much suspicion about Clinton’s misbehavior (click for some samples) as it did of Kennedy’s but has chosen, until recent weeks, mostly to ignore or dismiss it.
One simple reason is that today, as in Kennedy’s day, proof of presidential misbehavior is hard to come by. We may all “know” JFK had an affair with Monroe, but Seymour Hersh, while writing The Dark Side of Camelot, was so desperate for evidence that for a time he was duped by forged documents supposedly proving the liaison. In his history of the Kennedy era, Richard Reeves writes that Kennedy, concerned that increasingly clamorous rumors of an affair with Monroe might actually make it into print, sent former journalist and Peace Corps official William Haddad to tell various publications that Kennedy himself said the stories weren’t true. Years later, Reeves writes, Haddad said: “He lied to me. He used my credibility with people I knew.” (Attention Paul Begala.)
But when seemingly hard facts about Clinton’s past have thrust themselves upon the media, journalists have needed a different justification for turning them aside other than the 1960s doctrine that it was none of the public’s business. That justification was the widely held convention that during his candidacy Clinton addressed the issues of his past infidelities, however obliquely, and that by electing him twice the public had given him a pass. Commentator Mark Shields has said of the Lewinsky scandal that it represents a violation of a “tacit agreement between Bill Clinton and the American electorate in 1992.” That is, the public would ignore his Arkansas shenanigans as long as they didn’t continue in the White House. Let’s call it the Ozark Exemption.
Lelyveld says the New York Times decided not to pursue 1993 allegations of numerous simultaneous affairs–made by four Arkansas state troopers who guarded then-Gov. Clinton–because “We made a deliberate choice … not to be aggressive on Clinton’s Arkansas philandering … partly because the country had voted on it.” It’s debatable, however, how fully the public was informed of the extent of Clinton’s alleged womanizing. As Newsweek recently reported, among other tactics, the campaign paid $100,000 to private investigator Jack Palladino to find and discredit alleged Clinton paramours. Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, told The New Yorker that Palladino led a “very aggressive campaign to suppress information.” One reporter I spoke to who covered the race said he came to believe–but of course never made public–that Clinton had had hundreds of lovers.
The handling of the Troopergate charges is illustrative of the media’s discomfort with the whole subject. In December 1993, both the Los Angeles Times and the Clinton-bashing American Spectator published similar versions of the story almost simultaneously. There was a small flurry of attention among the networks, but according to the Columbia Journalism Review, CBS declined even to air the charges. The New York Times wrote only reluctantly about it, and the Washington Post treated it mostly as a media story. Within the Los Angeles Times, publication of the story was controversial. Jack Nelson, the paper’s Washington bureau chief at the time, said, “there was conspiracy, in my opinion, by right-wingers” to force the newspaper to run the story before it was ready. (Representing the troopers was Arkansas attorney and avowed Clinton-hater Cliff Jackson, who had tried to arrange for a right-wing financier to create a fund for the troopers before publication, in case they lost their jobs.)
Columbia Journalism Review writer Christopher Hanson even called for a return to the standards of Kennedy’s day. He wrote: “In the 1960s, after all, just a few dozen national reporters could define what is news, and they were able to decide that JFK’s sexual adventures (an open secret) did not qualify. Today, unfortunately, the rationalists have lost the power to set standards of relevancy.”
There was a central charge in both the Los Angeles Times and American Spectator accounts that should have been a warning that Clinton’s predilections weren’t just history but also current events. This was that Clinton, after his election to the presidency, had the troopers escort a woman to the basement of the governor’s mansion to meet him at dawn while Hillary slept upstairs. (It also signaled a penchant for the convenience, and risk, of cheating at home–a trait for which Kennedy was known.) And a now eerily familiar phrase–one that seems unlikely to be spoken spontaneously–recurs in the Los Angeles Times story. When the paper contacted the unnamed woman said to have met Clinton in the basement, she responded that “there was no improper relationship.” Another woman confronted by reporters at first denied even knowing Clinton. Subsequently she told them she and Clinton had not had “an improper relationship.”
The American Spectator piece led directly to Paula Jones. Identified only as “Paula” in the story, she was described by one trooper as offering to become Clinton’s girlfriend after their encounter. She filed suit against Clinton in 1994, charging that Clinton had exposed himself to her. But while she got plenty of media attention, her story was widely dismissed as irrelevant under the Ozark Exemption, or as the nattering of, in the words of Newsweek’s Evan Thomas, “some sleazy woman with big hair coming out of the trailer parks”–a remark for which he later apologized. It wasn’t until Stuart Taylor Jr.’s 1996 American Lawyer investigation that the rest of the media began to take the charges, though perhaps not Jones, seriously. The media’s class bias protected Clinton from women like Jones and Gennifer Flowers–surely he couldn’t be attracted to a woman who wasn’t a Yale Law School graduate!
The other significant story of Clinton’s continuing sexual adventuring was Michael Isikoff’s account last August of a “murky” encounter between White House volunteer Kathleen Willey and the president. The allegation, reported in Newsweek, is that when Willey met alone with Clinton at the White House in 1993 to ask for a paying job, Clinton made a pass at her–a charge denied by the president’s attorney. What Isikoff couldn’t pin down was whether the advance was welcome or not. Among media heavyweights the story was about as welcome as a piece of kryptonite. The New York Times didn’t even cover the Willey story until the Lewinsky allegations broke in January and the Washington Post dismissed it as a media imbroglio–the Drudge Report had leaked details before publication.
Perhaps the only person who took the account seriously was the president himself. Recent reports allege that Clinton broke off his sexual relationship with Lewinsky around that time because he was afraid of the attention the Willey story might provoke. (Kennedy, too, took action when liaisons became too dangerous. For more on that, click.)
The Lewinsky story exploded because it takes the president’s behavior beyond the sexual into the criminal–with its looming questions of perjury and obstruction of justice. Historian Thomas Reeves believes that, despite the media’s reluctance to look into Kennedy’s private life, if he had lived to have a second term: “[T]he realities of his lechery and his dealings with Sam Giancana might have leaked out while he was still in office, gravely damaging the presidency. … Impeachment might well have followed such public disclosure.” In other words, the careless only stay lucky for so long.