Washington -- THERE ARE TWO legitimate questions to be raised about the personal life of Sen. Charles S. Robb. The first is whether, while serving as governor of Virginia more than seven years ago, he observed cocaine being used at a party he attended. The second is whether Robb's associates have threatened potential witnesses to damaging personal conduct on his part.
If the answer to either of these questions is affirmative, Robb may be vulnerable to charges he broke the law. But so far neither has been answered. The NBC program "Expose" aired such charges, along with an accusation he had an adulterous relationship with a former Miss Virginia, Tai Collins. But making the charges and proving them are two entirely different things. And in neither case did the network -- or any of the other press outlets that have written about the case -- produce the smoking gun.
The result, nonetheless, is that the 51-year-old Democrat, who has been on everyone's short list of politicians with presidential potential, finds his future prospects, if not his current career, in serious jeopardy. There is something terribly fishy here.
The question of when the press is justified in reporting on the private lives of public officials has always been a tricky one. Evidence of lawbreaking has always been legitimate grist for news stories. But the rule on such things as sexual behavior or drinking habits has been that these are pertinent only to the extent that an officeholder's private conduct affects his performance of his public duties.
Thus, if the charge that Robb watched a woman a few feet away snort cocaine -- a charge made by one guest at a party, but denied by the host and others -- were proven, the former governor obviously would be fair game. The same is true if it could be established he was using his position as a senator to intimidate, through third parties, potential witnesses against him. There are laws about that. But what happened with Tai Collins at the Pierre Hotel in New York is hardly a public matter.
There are cases where sexual conduct becomes a legitimate DTC topic for inquiry. That is the case, for example, when the official involved deals with national security questions and might be subject to blackmail. It is also the case, as with candidate Gary Hart in 1987, where the presidency of the United States is involved. A candidate who flagrantly disregards commonly accepted standards of behavior is obviously too politically flawed to be elected to the White House.
But Robb, whatever his future prospects, is not a candidate for president. He is not the chief executive making critical decisions; he is just a senator who can call a public hearing. So the matter of his relationship with Tai Collins is not one that deserves to be in the public domain -- or at least not by the standards that prevailed until so much of the press began rewriting them. But the lasting damage to Robb already has been done.
Robb himself did not help matters with his handling of the episode. Three days before the NBC story was scheduled to be broadcast, the Virginia Democrat launched what politicians, borrowing from the military, call a "pre-emptive strike" -- in this case, an attempt through interviews and statements to deny the impending charges so emphatically as to discredit them before they were ever aired.
As it turned out, that strategy was a world-class blunder. The denials in advance served only to make a three- or four-day story out of one that would have collapsed of its own weight within a couple of news cycles. The evidence used on the air to support the charges was too flimsy to sustain it any longer than that.
It is not hard to understand why Chuck Robb felt obliged to respond as he did. The gossip about cocaine and the beauty queen has been circulating through the political community for several years. Virginia newspapers have published stories about these reports.
Chuck Robb, moreover, is a highly visible target. He is the golden boy son-in-law of Lyndon B. Johnson. He was a highly successful governor. He was one of the prime movers in the formation of the Democratic Leadership Council. He is chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for 1992. He is obviously ambitious for the national ticket.
So it is not surprising there are those who would be happy to see him cut down a peg. But he doesn't deserve to be cut down with unproven allegations.