Press scrutiny goes back long before the Clintons


April 06, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

NEW YORK -- Hillary Clinton has introduced a new standard to American journalism:

In order to be fair, the press should be equally despicable to all.

And I agree with her.

My only problem is that the Clintons (her husband, Bill, is the one running for president) feel that press scrutiny was recently invented just to bedevil them.

They forget that Gary Hart went through the same scrutiny four years ago and even had his house staked out by reporters.

But now Hillary has complained to Vanity Fair magazine that the press refuses to report rumors about George Bush's "carrying on" because of an unfair double standard.

In fact, however, the press has reported a number of rumors about George Bush but has never been able to substantiate any of them.

No one, for instance, has ever come forward with audio tapes and said they carried on a 12-year-affair with George Bush, as Gennifer Flowers said she had with Bill Clinton.

Hillary Clinton doesn't seem to think this should make a difference. But it does.

In any case, the issue of presidential candidates and past infidelity is one that Hillary should have stayed far, far away from.

That's because when false rumors swept Wall Street in October 1988 that the Washington Post was going to print a story on a past Bush love affair, the stock market plunged 43 points. And the Post was forced to issue a statement saying no such story was planned.

(And when a Michael Dukakis aide, Donna Brazile, then told reporters she thought Bush "owes it to the American people to 'fess up,' " she was forced to resign and Dukakis apologized.)

But this shows what reports of infidelity can do. A drop of 43 points in the Dow Jones industrial average represents millions of dollars.

So past fooling around by a presidential candidate is not th "private" matter that Bill Clinton insists it should be. It has public consequences.

But let's examine Hillary's implication that Bush's private life has never been examined by the press:

On March 22, 1981, the Washington Post carried a lengthy Page 1 story about a pervasive but entirely silly rumor that Bush, then the vice president, had been shot and wounded after leaving a woman's home on Capitol Hill in the "pre-dawn" hours.

Then in the spring of 1987, when Bush was running for president, new but unsubstantiated rumors surfaced that he had had an affair.

And Lee Atwater, Bush's campaign manager, quickly dispatched Bush's oldest son, George Jr., to tell Newsweek magazine: "The answer to the Big A question is N.O."

And then, just before Bush's second debate with Michael Dukakis in October 1988, an underground newspaper in Los Angeles devoted its entire issue to the "dark side of George Bush" and the rumored affair.

That eventually led to the Post rumor and the Wall Street plunge. And news media like the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, CBS and the Associated Press carried reports.

But, unlike the case of Donna Rice and Gary Hart, there was never any substantiation and, unlike the case of Gennifer Flowers, nobody ever came forward.

So the rumors died. Until this weekend when Hillary Clinton revived them with her statements to Vanity Fair.

After the New York tabloids ran huge headlines about her statements, Hillary issued a non-apology apology for making them. (She said they were a "mistake." That is not the same thing as saying she was sorry.)

What is instructive, however, is the difference between Hillary's reaction to such rumors and Barbara Bush's.

After the story appeared in 1981 about Bush leaving the house of a woman in the pre-dawn hours, Barbara met with reporters.

And to the surprise of all, she did not bash the press. "The story put my mind at rest," one reporter recollects her saying. "When I read that George was sneaking around in the pre-dawn, I said, 'Not George.' Pre-afternoon, maybe. But pre-dawn? Not George Bush."

And everyone in the room burst into laughter.

Hillary Clinton is a very smart person.

But Barbara Bush is a very smart campaigner.

And Hillary is just learning the difference.

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