Invading bedrooms is no way to treat public officials . . .

September 24, 1998|By Ronald Brownstein

THE AIR in Washington was gray and heavy with the weight of an approaching storm last week when the Internet magazine Salon released its story that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican, had conducted an extended affair 30 years ago with a woman whose marriage unraveled shortly afterward.

Storm clouds were appropriate. It may have been at precisely that moment that Washington was forced to contemplate exactly how hard a rain is going to fall if -- as now seems inevitable -- Congress spends the next half year or more clawing over whether President Clinton should be removed from office for trying to conceal a sexual affair.

Political warfare

Anyone familiar with gang violence or ethnic warfare will recognize the cycle that's developing. Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr infuriates Democratic partisans by releasing far more explicit details about Mr. Clinton's affair with Monica S. Lewinsky than he needed for his legal case. Salon fires back with the story about Mr. Hyde. House Republicans fume at the humiliation of their colleague, and then vote to compound Mr. Clinton's humiliation by releasing the videotape of his grand jury testimony.

Mr. Hyde didn't even provide any of the usual pretexts reporters use when justifying the release of such a personal story. Mr. Hyde hadn't run advertisements attacking Mr. Clinton's character (like Idaho Republican Rep. Helen Chenoweth, who was then forced to admit a past affair with a married man); he hadn't been excessively moralistic in discussing Mr. Clinton's problems (like Indiana Republican Rep. Dan Burton, who was then forced to admit he fathered a child out of wedlock); and he had never claimed to be unblemished.

Yet Salon, reflecting the views of many Democratic partisans, concluded that no more justification was needed than the underlying fact that Mr. Hyde was now presiding over a potential impeachment inquiry inextricably rooted in judgments about Mr. Clinton's sexual behavior. "Ugly times call for ugly tactics," wrote Salon's editors in a grimly utilitarian explanation.

Seen from that angle, the release of the Hyde story was both depressing and inevitable. And, despite pledges from both Republican and Democratic leaders late last week to discourage more personal attacks, there's no reason to believe this bloodletting will stop with Mr. Hyde. Maybe much of the mainstream media thinks the sexual outing already has gone too far, but it is hardly in a position to ignore new revelations about key congressional decision-makers (sexual or otherwise) after examining Mr. Clinton's behavior so exhaustively. Besides, the real lesson of the Hyde story is that today no one -- not the major papers, not the networks, not the newsmagazines -- can control the flow of unsavory information.

Several newspapers wouldn't bite on the story when a friend of the aggrieved husband came peddling it in the past few months. Not that it mattered much. Once Salon printed it, Mr. Hyde was forced to acknowledge it, and the major papers printed the account the next day.

Nor is there any reason to think this will stop with Congress. Several of the potential Republican presidential candidates in 2000 already have declared that they've never strayed in marriage. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, recently suggested that politicians who've broken their marriage vows over any extended period may want to find another line of work. (Too bad we hadn't laid down that standard earlier. Maybe we could have spared the nation from the leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower.) All of this is virtually daring the media, and political opponents, to poke through more bedrooms in 2000.

And why stop with just the candidates? Isn't it relevant to assess the sexual history and moral standing of the conservative and liberal talking heads -- not to mention the reporters themselves -- passing judgment on Mr. Clinton's character every day?

Already on "Meet the Press," host Tim Russert has asked conservative author David Brock whether he renounced his critical views of Mr. Clinton because Mr. Brock was "in love with [a] former press secretary for Hillary Clinton." Well, maybe some of Mr. Clinton's fiercest critics are so angry at his behavior because of repressed guilt about their own adulteries. Shouldn't we be asking them all?

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.