Why Mr. Livingston, I Had No Idea

Chatterbox, who opposes impeachment, is reeling from rhetorical overload. On CNN in the background, first-term Detroit Democrat Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick just hit new hyperbolic heights when she claimed that America “is moving toward a totalitarian country.” During this sad-eyed weekend, Chatterbox has stubbornly decided to take comfort where he can find it. That’s why he is glad that the outing of Bob Livingston as a serial adulterer seems to be a one-day story which will disappear from view before the House pauses in its bipartisan logorrhea to brand Bill Clinton with a scarlet “I.”

With blood in the water and bombs over Baghdad, embittered Democrats are undoubtedly chortling that Livingston was snared in the latest roundup of sexual suspects. But Chatterbox longs for the good old days when sexual revelations first surfaced in responsible publications like the National Enquirer and the Star–and not Hustler. Life was far better back in the 1970s when Larry Flynt’s journal of record self-mockingly dubbed itself, “Hustler–the magazine that nobody quotes.”

When Hustler’s hi-jinks hit the news early Thursday evening, sanitized by a confirmation on the Roll Call web site, the smart-money scenario in the capital was that Livingston would be forced to resign. But once again, the Washington morals squad failed to grasp that Americans have become a people with tangled sexual histories. When the Republican caucus absolved Livingston with a standing ovation, countless members were nurturing their own “there but for the grace of God go I” secrets. Free and easy sex has always been part of the lure of politics. What do you think happens on golfing weekends with lobbyists or congressional junkets to Thailand?

This is probably not the moment to remind Clinton loyalists that the president should have confessed the moment that Madcap Monica’s name appeared on the witness list in the Paula Jones case. A sadder-but-wiser Dick Morris gave the president solid advice back in January, when he said that the voters would forgive sex but not perjury. Livingston survived because he didn’t try to bottle up the story with an angry attack on Hustler as “a scurrilous skin magazine peddling a phantasmagoria of filth.” Okay, Livingston laid it on a bit thick with his lines about “spiritual counseling” and an “otherwise wonderful marriage.” But he behaved like an honors graduate of the school for scandal by following the modern political dictum: “Nothing beats a speedy confession.”

As long as we’re talking about rules, Chatterbox wants to codify the precepts that should, in an ideal world, govern press coverage of sex scandals. (Note to foundations, think tanks, and academic conference planners: Chatterbox will happily expound on these sage insights in exchange for first-class air fare. Beach locales preferred). Having covered the last five presidential campaigns, Chatterbox promises to abandon all future attempts to practice psychiatry without a license. He is frankly scornful of the amateur shrinks with press tags dangling around their necks who piously claim that sexual behavior illuminates character. If Jack Kennedy’s hyperactive libido somehow explains the recklessness of the Bay of Pigs invasion, then how come Clinton’s sexual escapades have produced such a cautious poll-propelled presidency?

A drum roll, please, for the official clip-and-save list of the seven occasions of sin that justify publishing the fruits of journalistic keyhole peeping:

1). If the extra-marital sexual activity is conducted in a flamboyantly public place like the floor of the House with the C-SPAN cameras rolling. Others may disagree, but Chatterbox believes that the Oval Office qualifies under this definition.

2). If it includes under-age partners, such as congressional pages, or other illegal activity.

3). If it produces legal charges of sexual harassment.

4). If it features call girls provided by a lobbyist.

5). If it leads to lying under oath.

6). If the politician put his paramour on the public payroll as Wayne Hays did with Elizabeth “I Can’t Type” Ray in the 1970s.

7). If the politician is guilty of flagrant hypocrisy. Idaho’s black-helicopter-fearing, militia-loving, right-wing Republican Rep. Helen Chenoweth became fair game (she was forced to admit to an affair with a married man) as soon as she ran TV ads decrying the president’s immorality.

But Chatterbox must stress that hypocrisy is not an all-purpose loophole like the soft-money provisions in the campaign-finance laws. It is not enough that a skirt-chasing senator poses with his wife and children in a stray campaign ad or splashes their smiling pictures on his Christmas cards. Salon’s cruel outing of Henry Hyde for a 30-year-old affair did not come close to meeting the hypocrisy standard. Not only was the l’amour far beyond the statute of limitations, but also Hyde was not serving as Grand Inquisitor on the president’s sex life, except as it related to Clinton’s idiosyncratic definition of perjury.

It is worth adding that Livingston, clearly worrying about a few fish-net stockings left under his bed, was scrupulously silent about the president’s moral conduct before Clinton’s August grand jury testimony. Again, the hypocrisy defense fails.

As far as any other type of tawdry revelations is concerned, Chatterbox says it’s spinach–and to hell with it.

Walter Shapiro