Congress members' pasts have no bearing on Clinton's future

September 21, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- One of these days we're going to find out that when Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, was in the fourth grade, he dipped a little girl's pigtail into an inkwell. And the implication will be that this bit of personal history disqualifies Mr. Hatch as a legitimate judge of President Clinton's behavior.

That's the direction things seem to be going in what passes for public debate these days.

The "news" that Rep. Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, had an extramarital affair 30 years ago is some kind of a new low. And it speaks volumes about both the intensity of the controversy over Mr. Clinton's future and the inability of the press to apply any standard of decency to what is reported.

The notion that there is any kind of equivalency between the private conduct of members of Congress and that of the president is preposterous. The key question is whether Mr. Clinton committed a crime when he testified about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

Mr. Hyde and his committee are charged with deciding whether there is enough evidence of "high crimes and misdemeanors" for the president to be impeached by the House and tried by the Senate. So it is not surprising that the 74-year-old chairman sees the story of his long-ago affair as an attempt to intimidate him even if there is no evidence the White House was responsible for spreading the story.

But the Hyde story is part of what is now becoming a pattern. There have been stories about the extramarital affairs of both Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, the chairman of another House committee investigating Mr. Clinton, and Rep. Helen Chenoweth Idaho, a militant conservative critic of Mr. Clinton. The lawmakers' hometown newspapers that broke these stories claim these politicians' private lives were fair game because they had set themselves up as moral judges of Mr. Clinton.

In the Hyde case, however, there is not even a flimsy excuse for dredging up a 30-year-old indiscretion. The purveyor of the story a longtime friend of the "wronged husband" in that affair who has been shopping the story without success to newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe.

Mr. Hyde's pursuer hit pay dirt finally by getting the story carried by Salon, an on-line magazine that has been considered strongly pro-Clinton.

And once that happened, the mainstream press could not ignore Mr.Hyde's angry statement. That is the core of the problem. There are now so many sources of what is called "news" that everything eventually finds its way into general distribution to the public.

This problem is not new. During the 1988 presidential campaign, supporters of Lyndon LaRouche circulated an accusation that Democratic candidate Michael S. Dukakis had been treated for an emotional illness. These are the people who accuse Queen Elizabeth of being a dope peddler, so the accusation wasn't taken seriously at the outset.

But the rumor was put into the public domain when a reporter asked Mr. Dukakis about it at a press conference and he denied it. Few mainstream newspapers reported the exchange at that point. But then a reporter asked President Ronald Reagan about the charge and he blithely replied that he didn't want to "pick on an invalid" -- a one-liner that the press could not ignore. Tracking polls showed an immediate drop in Mr. Dukakis' support.

The whole thing was grossly unfair to Mr. Dukakis but apparently unavoidable. The mainstream press could not ignore a wisecrack by the president, and the same is true today of Mr. Hyde's angry statement about the charge against him.

It may turn out, of course, that there will be a backlash against anyone trying to defend Mr. Clinton by tarring his investigators. Even if the White House is blameless in this case, as it seems to be, there is the history of the way presidential aides trashed Kathleen Willey after she went public with her charge that Mr. Clinton had groped her in the Oval Office.

In a perfect world, Americans would be able to sort out the differences between the questions about the president and the personal histories of those who are investigating him.

Mr. Hyde's sex life has nothing to do with whether and how Mr. Clinton should be punished for his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and his lengthy refusal to concede sexual behavior.

Chances are there will be other attacks on the Republicans before this is over. Who knows what Mr. Hatch was up to in the fourth grade?

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 9/21/98

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