Covering charges of Clinton's womanizing On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

January 27, 1992|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Claremont, N.H. -- WHEN THE latest gossip tabloid allegations of past marital infidelity confronted Gov. Bill Clinton here the other day, they posed a dilemma not only for the candidate but also for the press corps covering his presidential campaign.

Within the press corps, the tabloid that had paid a Little Rock woman for her story, the naionally circulated Star, had little more credibility than it did with Mr. Clinton himself, who had observed earlier that a publication that reported "Martians landing on Earth" and other fantasies didn't warrant much trust.

But the Star professed to have tapes from the woman in which Mr. Clinton allegedly told her to say nothing if asked about a past TC affair with him. Such an instruction, if true, could be construed as a deception and a cover-up, but Mr. Clinton quickly insisted he had merely been reassuring a nervous individual unaccustomed to dealing with the press and had simply told her to "tell the truth."

The charges, however, clearly were having an impact on the conduct of the Clinton campaign. The Arkansas governor, under the glare of television lights, was obliged to respond and his schedule was thrown into disarray as he and aides closeted themselves to consider how to cope with the disruptive and potentially disastrous situation.

Could the reporters traveling with Clinton ignore all this? Obviously not. When Mr. Clinton decided to respond to the charges by denying them, the press was obliged by the nature of its function as well as fairness to report that denial, knowing the charges themselves were being aired, regardless of the source.

But the distastefulness of the circumstances -- being pulled into reporting allegations by a less-than-reputable publication known for printing wild stories and in this case paying big bucks for this one -- and the sensitivity of the matter were reflected in how the story was played.

On the night Mr. Clinton responded, only one of the three major networks made mention of the matter on the evening news, although ABC News' "Nightline" later devoted its half hour to the propriety of reporting it. Most newspapers ran only short accounts on inside columns, including the Manchester Union Leader, notorious in the past for splashing scandal stories across its front page, especially about candidates the paper's owner does not favor, a category that covers Mr. Clinton.

Still, in light of how the Gary Hart womanizing story in 1987 led to the political downfall of another Democratic candidate who, like Mr. Clinton today, was regarded as his party's front runner at the time, these latest allegations could not be dismissed out of hand. They required handling with care, and most of the news media afforded them that care.

Critics of the news media regarding this whole area of reporting, particularly among politicians, have deplored what they have called an irresponsible, anything-goes attitude, and in some cases that charge has been warranted. Some publications cannot resist a sensationalist story no matter what the source.

But when some element is introduced into a political campaign that obviously disrupts it, affects the schedule and often the performance of the candidate, reporters covering that campaign cannot simply look the other way. On this occasion, Mr. Clinton met the disclosure of the Star allegations straightforwardly and with composure, but it was clear that a political grenade had been tossed into his campaign and had to be dealt with.

In 1987, when the allegations against Mr. Hart forced him out of the race, the news media showed little restraint, but the circumstances were significantly more damaging and provable against him. His womanizing was established as current at the time and the evidence was strongly persuasive, even among Hart insiders and loyalists.

This time, the woman's allegations were of past behavior by a political figure who had acknowledged that his marriage had experienced problems, and there was no "smoking bed," as the wits now put it. Accordingly, much of the news media responded to the professional dilemma by reporting a story many would have preferred to pass by, but reporting it with due restraint.

More is probably to be heard concerning the charges of womanizing against Mr. Clinton. But so far at least their handling by the press and television provides grounds for hope that lessons have been learned about the pitfalls of wretched excess.

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