Invasion of privacy?

Carl P. Leubsdorf

May 03, 1991|By Carl P. Leubsdorf

NEITHER Sen. Alfonse D'Amato nor Sen. Charles Robb liked the way he was depicted on television Sunday night.

But there was a significant difference between the CBS "60 Minutes" show that aired charges of the New York Republican's alleged efforts to help steer federal contracts to contributors and the revelations on NBC's "Expose" program about the Virginia Democrat's personal life.

The former essentially sought to raise allegations of official misconduct, while the latter was primarily occupied with personal behavior, although it also raised suggestions of attempted intimidation against those making the charges.

But it's a line that seems increasingly blurred these days, raising difficult questions for the media and increased problems for those in, or considering, public life.

Charges of the sort being leveled against D'Amato, which stem in part from a grand jury investigation now aimed primarily at his brother and a Senate Ethics Committee inquiry, are nothing new. Few would question the relevance of allegations relating to campaign or governmental activities.

But personal charges are new. A generation ago, the question of whether Robb had engaged in extramarital activity or been present when drugs were used would never have been aired publicly. Many believe they still should not be.

At least two 20th-century presidents, Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, reportedly had extramarital relationships that were publicized only years later.

The same apparently was the case with John and Robert Kennedy, though veteran White House hands say that at least some reporters knew about their dalliances with Marilyn Monroe and others.

And I can recall seeing a prominent U.S. senator, Russell Long of Louisiana, so drunk on the Senate floor a quarter-century ago that an aide had to lead him away. No one wrote a word about it.

A few years later, however, there were stories when Sen. Harrison Williams of New Jersey often made appearances in an inebriated state. And the 1987 case of former Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado showed how much standards had changed.

Even then, the issue wasn't really so much whether Hart had engaged in extramarital affairs, as had long been suspected by reporters covering him. It was the veracity and character of a man who denied such activity, challenged reporters to follow him and then got caught.

But the Hart case seemed to open the floodgates. Soon, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported on the extramarital activities of a man who was thinking of running for president, then Ohio Gov. Dick Celeste. And he decided against running.

At least one other governor about whom there had been similar rumors decided not to run, as did a senator who reportedly has maintained a long relationship with a woman on his staff -- with the knowledge of his wife, but not his children and the public.

But all this left unanswered the question of whether any private activity by a public official was fair game. Indeed, one question that sometimes arises in discussing some prospective 1992 presidential candidates is whether one or another past activity would become an issue if the person decided to run.

If one accepts the conclusion that it was Hart's denial and challenge that got him into trouble, rather than his relationship with Donna Rice per se, one could easily conclude that some of these matters would remain private. But the NBC program on Robb seems to refute that conclusion and to say that, rightly or wrongly, there are no longer any barriers of privacy.

It is easy to argue that the American people should know everything possible about both the character and the public record of those who seek to become president. Most analysts believe the public sets higher standards for the White House than for members of Congress, governors or local officials. (Polls show that Sen. Kennedy's ratings in Massachusetts have not suffered from the Palm Beach affair.)

But the belated discovery that Roosevelt and Eisenhower may have had extramarital relationships doesn't seem to have much effect on the high public regard for them.

Of course, things might have been different if they had been displayed on a television program like "Expose."

Carl Leubsdorf writes for The Dallas Morning News.

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