Rule by Goody-Goodies

May 26, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Some letters to the editor sink without a trace. Others set off a chain reaction that hisses and spits for weeks. Mike Kernan's letter to The Sun of May 5 was one of the second kind.

Mike identified himself in his letter as a former reporter for the Washington Post, and I can confirm that. He's too modest to say that he was known while there as a fine reporter, brilliant writer and likeable person, but I can confirm that too. When the Post's ''Style'' section was first getting off the ground in the late 1960s, Mike's work helped give it the bright sassy tone that other newspapers were soon trying to imitate.

In his letter, Mike said essentially that the newspapers ought to ignore Paula Jones's sexual-harassment lawsuit against President Clinton. He said the newspapers knew lots of sexual dirt about other presidents, including John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and George Bush, but didn't print it, so they ought to extend the same courtesy to Bill Clinton.

It wasn't entirely a new point, as it echoed comments made elsewhere by other defenders of the president. Factually, what Mike asserts about Kennedy and Johnson is now pretty well accepted by historians. As for George Bush, I know next to nothing about his personal life. But considering the press's enthusiastic partisanship in the 1992 election campaign, it's a little hard to believe that it had the goods on Mr. Bush yet chose not to publish for reasons of delicacy.

Leaving the dubious Bush business aside, though, Mike Kernan's point was articulately and provocatively made. Certainly it provoked plenty of people, including at least two other former reporters -- Jerry Adler, who wrote for the News American, and me.

I think Mike was thinking with his heart, which is OK on the ''Style'' pages but risky elsewhere. Presumably, along with many other Americans, he likes the president and supports what he sees as the administration's objectives. He thinks that questions about the president's personal conduct, especially his conduct before he was elected, are irrelevant, and shouldn't be permitted to influence the development of important national policies.

But censorship, whether imposed from within or without, is a swamp. You venture into it with the best of intentions, and the next thing you know you're stuck and haven't a clue how to get out.

The contrast has been widely noted between the way the press handled the 1991 allegations of sexual harassment brought by Anita Hill against Clarence Thomas, and the way it has handled those made recently by Mrs. Jones against the president. The press, rather defensively, has tried to explain its behavior by drawing legalistic distinctions between the two cases.

Some Washington reporters need a reminder that they're not the Supreme Court. It would be a far sounder and more principled policy to report the facts as best they can be determined, and let people make up their own minds about the rights and wrongs. But what seems to worry Mike Kernan in particular and the press in general is the possibility that they will make up their minds in an unapproved way.

There's a cultural chasm here too. Life in the big media is hard on monogamy. If the voices of all adulterous journalists were divinely hushed, the sudden silence coming out of Washington would be eerie. So there's a perceptible feeling of kinship with sexual athletes, and a related suspicion of those who keep their marriage vows.

Most likely fidelity's phony, many reporters believe, and if not it's weird. One reason Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter weren't more popular with the press was the lack of spicy rumors concerning )) their private lives.

Joe Klein of Newsweek, appearing on ''Face the Nation'' earlier this month, was unusually candid about this. ''We're going to wind up with government by goody-goodies,'' he worried, ''government by people who have done nothing in their lives except walk the straight and narrow. . . . In the 20th century, having an interesting sexual history is a leading indicator of success in the presidency.''

Thus, if Bill Clinton as governor of Arkansas did the things Paula Jones alleges in her lawsuit, it indicates that he's the right kind of man to be president. But if the dull American public can't understand that, and might withdraw its already tepid support for the president if it learns the details of his behavior, then the job of the press is clear. Keep the fools in the dark.

Years ago, going back to the days when Warren Harding and his mistress were putting together their own interesting sexual historyin the White House closets, the press did eschew the personal in its coverage of government. But that hasn't been the case for years. Nowadays, we want to know all the details, and we get them.

I recall a story in the Washington Post, published 25 years ago, that shocked and titillated Maryland readers by revealing in detail the contents of newly-elected Governor Marvin Mandel's medicine closet. It was a great story, a precursor of much to come. The reporter was Mike Kernan.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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