Frame Game

The Gary Bauer Scandal

Did Gary Bauer commit adultery with a campaign aide? Rumors to that effect have circulated for weeks. Monday, a New York Daily News gossip column asked, “What presidential candidate is praying that a former secretary doesn’t go public with her claim that he’s been having an affair with a twentysomething woman? Many on the married Republican’s campaign staff are already jumping ship.” National Journal’s Hotline broadcast that teaser, and radio host Don Imus linked it to Bauer. The San Francisco Chronicle asked Bauer about the rumors and published his denial Tuesday. At a news conference Wednesday, Bauer denied that he had violated his marital vows or inappropriately touched anyone, and he challenged the dozens of reporters on hand to produce evidence or a specific, on-the-record allegation that he had done so.

If reporters had the evidence, they could have produced it. If not, they could have closed their notebooks and walked away. Instead, they interrogated Bauer for half an hour in front of eight TV cameras and wrote articles suggesting that whether or not he had had an affair, he was wrong to have left open the possibility that anyone might have thought he had done anything wrong. The scandal isn’t that Bauer committed adultery. The scandal is that without proving that charge or even making it, the media have found ways to spin lesser, derivative, and empty insinuations about him into a national story. Let’s examine the charges against him.

1. Bauer committed“the appearance of impropriety.” Unable to produce allegations of impropriety, reporters asked Bauer in accusatory tones whether he had “met behind closed doors” with the aide, Melissa McClard (answer: yes), and whether Bauer’s aides had told him “that people are asking questions [about it] and it’s making people uncomfortable.” When Bauer challenged a reporter to define the alleged “inappropriate behavior,” the reporter replied, “That you were seen too often with a woman on your campaign, who is described to me as being 26 years old and blond.” Another reporter accused Bauer of being “ambiguous, because you’re not really telling us … can you understand the perception that you may have had an affair?” How Bauer could refute such perceptions, questions, and discomfort was equally ambiguous.

Two alleged Bauer accusers, former aides Charles Jarvis and Tim McDonald, finally went on the record Wednesday. Jarvis said he had no proof of a sexual relationship between Bauer and McClard, and McDonald said he believed Bauer’s denial of such a relationship. Rather than conclude that there was no story, the Washington Post published an article, headlined “Ex-Aides to Bauer Speak Out,” which paraphrased the two men as saying Bauer’s meetings with McClard “looked” inappropriate and “lent themselves to gossip and rumor.” The Post quoted Jarvis as saying Bauer “has no business creating that kind of appearance of impropriety.”

2. Theappearance of impropriety by a Christian conservative is itself improper. A Post reporter pressed Bauer about his closed-door meetings with McClard: “Billy Graham doesn’t do it, James Dobson doesn’t do it. So [among] the people who you are close to, actually, there is a sensitivity about meeting with women behind closed doors. I’m not saying there should be one. I don’t think there should. But there is one.” Thursday’s Post reported that Jarvis and McDonald “said Bauer spent hours behind closed doors with her and traveled alone with her, violating the strict rules they believe govern conservative Christian married men in their dealings with women.” By framing the issue as “sensitivity,” the Post avoided taking responsibility for deeming Bauer’s closed-door meetings an important issue.

3. Bauerappeared to ignore allegations of the appearance of impropriety. “Is it possible,” a reporter asked Bauer, “that you may have been engaging in behavior that was perfectly innocent [but] in the minds of the people who work for you and respected you was inappropriate, and that perhaps you–as it was put by someone to me–you appeared a little arrogant in refusing to recognize, according to them, their complaints?” In other words, Bauer’s offense is that he dismissed a perception he knew to be false.

4. Baueris covering up allegations of the appearance of impropriety. Reporters asked Bauer whether aides had told him they were “uncomfortable” about the appearance of his relationship with McClard. One reporter asked whether Bauer’s former secretary had told him, “I wish you wouldn’t behave this way with this woman.” When Bauer challenged the reporter to explain the meaning of “behave this way,” the reporter admitted, “I don’t know.”

Bauer denied that his aides had alleged actual impropriety: “No one leaving my campaign has said, ‘Gary, I am leaving your campaign because I believe you’re having an affair.’ ” He also denied that any perception of impropriety could be justified: “I cannot imagine that anybody in a campaign would object to me having a meeting behind closed doors with a professional woman.” The Post, seizing on the latter remark, reported that Jarvis “sharply disputed Bauer.” The sad truth, Jarvis told the Post, was that “people have confronted Gary about the appearance of impropriety.” Similarly, USA Today quoted Jarvis as saying, “Gary Bauer just went on national television and refused to tell the truth.” And what was that truth? That Jarvis and others had quit the campaign because of their “concerns about the relationship”–whatever that means.

5. Bauerimproperly failed to confront the person who apparently alleged the appearance of impropriety. “One would think,” one reporter lectured Bauer, “when you found that the source appeared to be [the Forbes] campaign, that you would go directly to the head of that campaign and say, ‘Is this happening? Are you people doing this?’ ” Another reporter chimed in, “For folks who are not presidential candidates, if somebody was spreading rumors like that about them, I think the first instinct would be to go to the suspected source and say, ‘Are you doing this? And if so, please stop it.’ Why didn’t you do that?”

6. Bauerfailed to disprove the possibility of impropriety. Unable to formulate a precise allegation, one reporter asked Bauer whether his behavior with McClard had been “flirtatious or in any way different from how you interact with other aides” (answer: no). When Bauer challenged another questioner to explain what he meant by “inappropriate behavior,” the questioner replied, “How specific do you want to get? I’m not sure I understand what you want.” Responding to Bauer’s assertion that he had never violated his wedding vows, another reporter cracked, “President Clinton said that too.” Thursday’s Chicago Tribune reported that Bauer “would not go much further than indicating he was faithful to his wife.” The collective implication is that Bauer’s denials must have been couched to protect some unspecified kind of dalliance.

7. Everyallegation is a political fact. Horse-race journalism ignores whether charges are true and focuses instead on whether they’re damaging. The first question to Bauer Wednesday was, “Don’t you just give this story more momentum by doing this?” Another reporter asked, “How do you think your supporters are going to respond to all this?” The Post, too scrupulous to say whether Bauer had done anything wrong or even whether the perception that he might have done so would hurt him politically, found one political scientist who “warned that Bauer could be fatally wounded, in political terms, by the dispute” and another who “said Bauer could help himself by saying, ‘I wish I wouldn’t have put myself in this kind of situation, I’m sorry and I apologize.’ ” Whether the “situation” was a misdeed or a perception was left unexplained. The Los Angeles Times told readers that “the real news was the wall-to-wall press throng” at the news conference.

8. Bauershowed bad judgment by letting the allegations of an appearance of impropriety become a political problem. A Salon reporter told Bauer, “A lot of us have heard this rumor. But to be quite honest, I think most people in this room are never going to mention it and probably didn’t take it very seriously. But you’ve now elevated it to a point that it will be on the evening news. And a lot of Americans, when they are first introduced to you … it will be for that–for denying an affair. What does that say about your political judgment?” Within hours, Salon published the reporter’s derisive story about the press conference, titled “Bauer: I am not a slut!

The problem isn’t that the media are malicious or are out to get Bauer. I know and like at least two of the reporters who asked some of the most loaded questions at the press conference. The problem is that they can’t resist a hot story. A sex scandal on the religious right, no matter how flimsy, seems too good to pass up. Reporters think they have to ask the killer question or advance the story, never mind which way it’s going. The campaign is in overdrive, their prey stands before them, and the heat of the moment carries them away. They wonder whether Gary Bauer is strong enough to resist the urge. They should ask the same question of themselves.