Glendening silence on rumors justified

May 24, 2001|By Barry Rascovar

RUMORS can be vicious or kind, but usually they're mean-spirited when they center on elected officials.

Parris N. Glendening can vouch for that.

Ever since Maryland's governor split from his wife last summer, titillating but unsubstantiated reports of his personal activities have been making the rounds.

Recently, the rumor mill has been working overtime.

A St. Mary's County paper, in tabloid style, put some of these salacious reports in print, then started backpedaling when the governor's press secretary said the paper got it wrong.

A Montgomery County newspaper then picked up this report and the governor's radio denial that he intended to resign before his term expires next year because of his changing marital status.

But beyond those comments, there's silence from the governor's suite on Mr. Glendening's private life.

It's a tough predicament for an elected official.

Do you "go public" and make it a full-blown controversy? Or do you clam up in hopes the rumors will eventually run their course?

President Bush's brother, the governor of Florida, decided on the direct-confrontation approach. On May 14, his staff tipped a reporter to ask Gov. Jeb Bush about wide-spread rumors that he'd had an affair with a state Cabinet official who is a former Playboy bunny.

That gave Governor Bush the opening to blast the rumors that had made their way onto the Internet, a British publication and several Florida newspapers.

"These are lies spread by gossip and it's ugly and it's hurtful," Florida's governor said.

Meanwhile, in New York City, the continuing soap-opera saga of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's marital troubles and his romantic companion spilled over from the gossip columns into tabloid headlines a year ago.

Now the mayor's messy divorce is making the news pages again.

On some days, the pugnacious mayor eagerly talks about his girlfriend, admitting their affair began two years ago.

On other days, he's telling the media to lay off, that he won't discuss his "feelings" because "they're mine. I have to live with them."

So Mr. Glendening has plenty of company as a public official whose life is, quite often, a fish bowl.

Neither the Maryland governor nor his second wife, Frances Ann, will discuss what prompted their separation or anything else about the split. Nor will the governor discuss rumors linking him to a State House aide.

That's the aspect that has piqued journalistic interest. After all, it's no one's business if a public official has a romantic fling with someone not connected to government.

It starts getting murky, though, if a top official promotes an aide he's wooing to a high-paying, influential job. Questions of propriety crop up at that stage.

But as long as Mr. Glendening refuses to comment on the rumors, and as long as his press secretary keeps denying the veracity of various unconfirmed reports, journalists are in a bind.

You can't go with a story without confirmatory evidence.

No one has found the proverbial smoking gun. There may not be one.

It's an unappetizing choice for politicians caught in such predicaments. And there's potential danger for them, too.

For Governor Bush, the danger is that by publicly denying the rumors of an illicit affair, everyone now knows about the reports. People who already distrust politicians will think the worst, despite the Florida governor's total denials.

His direct-attack strategy could also backfire if Mr. Bush ever does have marital problems. Then the old rumors will be dredged up and given a new spin.

"Aha," critics will say, "I told you so."

Mr. Glendening's approach -- quiet denial or no comment -- is a great strategy as long as none of the rumors turns out to be true.

But should any part of the rumors prove factual, the governor's credibility would be cooked. A deceived press would be all over him. He would be labeled a dishonest hypocrite.

Divorce is never easy. It's tough developing a new personal life. It becomes immensely more difficult if you're a public figure.

Mr. Glendening deserves the benefit of the doubt.

His private dealings are his own. As long as there aren't any links to his elected position, Maryland's governor owes no one an explanation.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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