Reporting Clinton rumor tests the lessons of '88

January 25, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- This time was supposed to be different.

After the 1988 presidential campaign, critics of the news media, including many in the press itself, felt reporters had gone too far in exposing the personal lives of politicians.

But again this year, a candidate's private sexual behavior is drawing headlines and filling the airwaves. And once again, the politicians, their handlers and the people who report the news are groping for ways of dealing with an explosive subject.

Has nothing changed? The answer, perhaps an unsatisfying one, is yes and no.

The candidate in the cross hairs this time is Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the early favorite in the race for the Democratic nomination. Mr. Clinton has denied the unsubstantiated allegations of an Arkansas woman, published in a paid interview in a supermarket tabloid, that he had an extramarital affair with her from 1977 to 1989.

Mr. Clinton previously acknowledged, however, that his 20-year marriage "has not been perfect." The new charges have raised questions, fair or not, about his character and credibility.

For many Democratic leaders, their worst nightmares about a Clinton candidacy -- that a female acquaintance would come forward with lurid tales of sexual misbehavior at a crucial moment in the campaign -- appear to be coming to life.

It is too early to say whether these charges would permanently damage Mr. Clinton's candidacy or his chances of unseating President Bush if he becomes the nominee.

But there is evidence to suggest that the country isn't witnessing a rerun of the real life mini-series that led Gary Hart to quit the last presidential race.

In 1987, when a reporter asked Mr. Hart, a Democratic presidential candidate, "Have you ever committed adultery?" it was an instant sensation. Across the country, there was an outpouring of anti-press abuse.

Last week, Mr. Clinton got the same question during a live interview on a New Hampshire television station. Some news organizations, including The Sun, did not report the question or his reply ("If I had, I wouldn't tell you."). Nationally, the exchange produced barely a ripple.

To some, this proves that the shock value of the sex and politics issue may be wearing off, because of Gary Hart and more recent episodes, such as the highly publicized confrontation between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, and the William Kennedy Smith rape trial. In any event, it shows that the news media are behaving with greater restraint this year.

When the Star first published allegations last week that Mr. Clinton had had affairs with five women, most mainstream news organizations reported the story -- which Mr. Clinton denounced as untrue -- but gave it little prominence. Some major news organizations had investigated the charges, which are contained in a lawsuit filed against the governor years ago by a disgruntled state employee; none had been able to confirm the allegations.

The tabloid later claimed that Mr. Clinton had a lengthy affair with a former nightclub singer, Gennifer Flowers. That story was widely reported, but most daily papers carried it on their inside pages. Three of the four major TV networks ignored it on their newscasts that night.

"I really think the press does not want to do the 'womanizing' story this year," says Terry Michael, former communications director of the Democratic National Committee.

But critics fault the news media for spreading unsubstantiated allegations at all. Even before the most recent round of stories, most newspaper, magazine and television profiles of Mr. Clinton's candidacy have made references to the womanizing rumors, notes Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist and author of "Feeding Frenzy," a critical study of political journalism.

"Four years ago, reporters were much more hesitant to say that rumors were swirling around a candidate. Now it's considered a standard part of the coverage," says Mr. Sabato, who believes the media should not report a candidate's extramarital activity so long as it remains discreet and "non-compulsive."

Reporters and editors aren't the only ones applying the lessons of four years ago to the '92 race. The politicians are, too, and no one more than Mr. Clinton.

In 1987, on the eve of an expected presidential announcement, the governor shocked supporters by announcing that he would not run, and cited family concerns as the reason. At the time, there was speculation that his decision, less than two months after Gary Hart left the race, might have been linked to concerns about political fallout from his own personal life.

This time, Mr. Clinton tried to deflate the issue before he began his campaign, by confronting it at a breakfast meeting with Washington reporters last fall. With his wife, Hillary, at his side, he insisted their marriage is sound today but had not been "free of difficulties" in the past.

"Most Americans knew what I was talking about," Mr. Clinton said late Thursday, after the latest round of allegations surfaced.

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