Glass houses and stones

September 18, 1998|By Froma Harrop

LET'S SET aside the question of whether covering up an affair constitutes an impeachable offense. Instead, let us address today's impassioned calls for a return to an earlier morality. An examination of the old ways, if done honestly, would not give comfort to many of the President's moral accusers.

In 1963, not very long ago, Nelson Rockefeller was vying for the Republican presidential nomination. The year before he had divorced his wife of more than 30 years and mother of his five children. He subsequently remarried a younger society matron. The conservative Manchester Union Leader denounced him as a "wife swapper." Columnist Joseph Alsop opined that Rockefeller could become president or he could remarry. He couldn't do both. The press had long known of the New York governor's extramarital affairs. No one said anything until he dissolved his marriage.

The old moral system did not condone adultery, but the welfare of children trumped a man's desire to make his lover an honest woman. When Eleanor Roosevelt learned of Franklin's affair with Lucy Mercer, she offered to grant him a divorce. According to biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, Roosevelt's mother threatened Franklin with disinheritance if he left his wife and children.

Fast forward to 1996. The Republican Party is putting forth Bob Dole as an antidote to the libertine in the White House. Mr. Dole genuinely embodied many of the old virtues, but his marital conduct was not among them. His wife, Phyllis, had stood by his side for decades. When he returned from war disabled, Phyllis went with Bob to his college classes and took notes for him. She tied his ties. She sewed costumes for the girls working in his campaign. When he returned home late, Phyllis would bring him dinner on a tray. In the early '70s, Mr. Dole dropped the homespun Phyllis and later married the young and accomplished Elizabeth Hanford.

The modern politician has mastered the art of making his first wife disappear: Upon reaching the top of his game in Washington, he dumps the workhorse who was so useful at the county and state levels. He's now a powerful man, and lots of nifty women are making themselves available. We're not talking about little go-fers like Monica Lewinsky. We're talking about professional hotshots like Elizabeth Dole, Wendy Gramm and Marianne Gingrich. Safely remarried and now preaching family values, the politician broadcasts his devotion to wife and children. That the children's mother and his wife are not one and the same is purged from the official biography.

It was amusing to hear Sen. Joseph Lieberman's pained speech on how President Clinton's sexual adventures had inflicted grave damage on the American family. A Democrat from Connecticut, Mr. Lieberman is a religious man who rigorously follows Jewish laws, except for the one requiring a lifetime commitment to marriage. His marriage failed, and his three children were consigned to a single-parent household.

This writer would not want a checkered private career to bar an otherwise talented politician from public service. But the recent rush to the pulpits by the serial monogamists does rankle. For all his glaring flaws, Mr. Clinton never "swapped wives."

What we have here, to rework Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous term, is "defining deviancy outward." That means attacking any socially damaging behavior that one is not currently participating in. As social critic Barbara Dafoe Whitehead recently observed, "Mainstream America clings to the easy illusion that the declining well-being of children has to do almost entirely with the behavior of unwed teen-age mothers or poor women on welfare rather than with the fragility of marital commitment within its own ranks."

There are signs of rebellion. In 1993, Rep. Joseph Kennedy II, Democrat from Massachusetts, sought to annul his first marriage. That was a prerequisite for Joe to march down the aisle again of a Catholic church. Already divorced two years, Sheila Rauch Kennedy was at peace with her ex-husband's decision to remarry. But she would not go along with a declaration that her marriage never even existed.

Sheila took her case to an aroused public. The ensuing outcry helped force Joe to abandon his candidacy for Massachusetts governor. Take note. Those imperfect individuals who insist on throwing stones might want to invest in helmets.

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal editorial writer and columnist.

Pub Date: 9/18/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.