Private Lives of Public Figures

January 28, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — C Boston-- Asked the ''A'' word, Bill Clinton said what he has said before: ''I'm not prepared tonight to say that any married couple should ever discuss that with anyone but themselves.'' And I suspect that the public, queasy after Long Dong Silver and Talking Gray Dots from Palm Beach, felt more relief than disappointment.

This is not Monkey Business in 1988. It is private business in 1992. Bill Clinton is no Gary Hart, the National Star is no Miami Herald and Hillary Clinton is neither Lee Hart in '88, Joan Kennedy in '80 nor as she put it, Tammy Wynette.

''You know, I'm not sitting here like some little woman, standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,'' said the feisty lawyer and gritty wife. ''I'm sitting here because I love him, and I respect him and I honor what he's been through and what we've been through together. And you know, if that's not enough for people, then heck -- don't vote for him.''

Mr. Clinton's own best minute in the 12 minutes of ''60 Minutes'' was his unrehearsed reaction to Steve Kroft's suggestion that the couple had an arrangement. ''Hey, wait a minute,'' he said. ''You're looking at two people who love each other. This is not an arrangement or an understanding. This is a marriage.''

I don't know if this interview will de-Flower the Clinton campaign and get the issue behind him. But in the lengthy American seminar about sexual morality, about the private lives of public figures, about the press and privacy, it looked a lot like a clarifying moment.

I never thought the Gary Hart debacle was a story of character assassination but rather one of character suicide. It is not coy to say that many of us were less concerned with sex than with stupidity, hubris, dishonesty, exploitation, carelessness, even compulsive risk-taking -- any of the above -- and what these characteristics would mean in the Oval Office.

But there was, and often is in sexual matters, an uncomfortable alliance between people who arrive at the same point of view from wholly different directions.

In the Gary Hart case it wasn't just the sleazoid and the serious media who became strange bedfellows. So did the religious right and the secular left, puritans and feminists, those who condemned him for breaking his vows to God and those who condemned him for the look in Lee's eyes.

We hold two very different sets of moral attitudes in America. One is essentially about obeying commandments. The other is about relationships. The first is as straightforward as sin. The second is as complicated as human feelings. The first asks God for forgiveness. The second asks his wife.

These differences may seem too stark. Many Americans go back and forth between the polls. But the differences are real. One moral view is focused on heaven's wrath, the other on human pain. One holds a single judgment about the meaning of adultery in every life. The other is sure that adultery says something about a person. But when asked what, they are likely to say: It depends.

The union that held these cultural opposites together in dumping Gary Hart, splits in two when faced with the Clintons' story. This is a husband who talked about ''causing pain,'' not about sin. He talked about endangering his marriage, not his eternal soul. This is a wife who is not a victim but a partner. Together they ask a valid question whether the public allows second acts in first marriages. Whether the public should judge what the couple has resolved.

The CBS poll said that 14 percent of the public wouldn't vote for anyone who committed adultery. That 14 percent wouldn't vote for Jerry Brown who went around with Linda Ronstadt, or for Bob Kerrey who dallied with Debra Winger. They might think Paul Tsongas' cancer was God's judgment and Tom Harkin is the liberal from Hell. Not much to lose there.

But a ''60 Minutes'' performance is not an election. You can approve of the marriage without voting for the man. This isn't a referendum on the press but a campaign for the presidency. Loyalty to any of these candidates is still very shallow.

The Clintons played their hand as well as possible. For some he's simply and irrevocably cast as a knave. But in the vast and ongoing debate over private lives, most Americans can put the sex card back into the full deck.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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