Jewish World Review August 31, 2001 / 12 Elul, 5761

Jules Witcover

Jules Witcover
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Consumer Reports

Scandal and privacy in politics -- THERE was a time in politics when a public official was granted a zone of privacy that was to be intruded only when his personal conduct affected how he performed the job for which he was elected.

This zone protected misconduct that ranged from excessive drinking to womanizing and more. Unless a senator fell down ossified on the Senate floor or a congressman was caught cavorting with a stripper in the Tidal Basin wading pool, it went unreported.

Even had President John Kennedy's antics with select members of the opposite sex who were spirited into the White House been known - and as a reporter at the time I didn't know, nor did any of my colleagues, as far as I know - they probably wouldn't have been written about, under the caveat of relevance to job performance.

But all that has changed, as a result of a developed judgment that flaws in personal character, including the practice of deception about one's behavior in private, are valid yardsticks for assessing a public official's qualifications and abilities for public service.

The deceptions of Lyndon Johnson in his escalation of the American involvement in the Vietnam War, and of Richard Nixon in the assorted Watergate and cover-up crimes that forced him from the presidency, were critical in this new willingness to probe the personal character as well as the public performance of high officials.

Never has the old cynical gag, that the only way to look at a politician is down, been more widely accepted as no joke than it is today. It is in this context that the sad disappearance of the federal intern Chandra Levy and her whatever relationship with Democratic Rep. Gary Condit have become a seemingly endless national saga, not only among cable talk-show motor-mouths but in the mainstream press as well.

Now that House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt has taken Condit to the woodshed on grounds that he was not forthcoming in explaining the relationship, it is impossible for the most respectable news outlets who usually look down their journalistic noses at such sensationalist stories to ignore it.

Gephardt's very public declaration that Condit's stonewalling performance in a television interview was "disturbing and wrong," and his suggestion that the California congressman might have to be kicked off a House intelligence subcommittee, moved the story past gossip to a matter of party policy that demanded reporting.

President Bush certainly sounded the responsible note in saying he was "not paying attention to the congressman, I am paying attention to whether or not this poor girl is found." But once the story reached a critical mass in terms of its distribution beyond television talk-show tattle, it could no longer be left to the gossip sheets.

This pattern of the scandalmongering tail wagging the straitlaced press, and driving a personal scandal story onto page one, has been growing at least since Gary Hart's trip to Bimini aboard the Monkey Business with Donna Rice moved from a supermarket tabloid to the New York Times in 1987.

It was seen again in 1992, when Bill Clinton's bedroom antics with Gennifer Flowers, denied at the time but later admitted, were first reported in the Star tabloid and graduated to the mainstream press when he broke off his presidential campaign in New Hampshire in full view of a horde of reporters to go into major damage control.

The question in these stories, as it is again in the Condit case, is perspective. When several weeks ago proponents of campaign finance reform bucked the House leadership's attempt to cripple the important bill before it, CNN and other cable television outlets gave the story second billing to the latest rehash of what Condit did or didn't tell police about the Levy relationship and disappearance.

The genie is out of the bottle now on this titillating saga of the young intern and the older congressman, and any new developments either on the young woman's fate or the political fate of the congressman certainly warrant coverage. But his decision to take personal damage control to the network airwaves only assured more reams of rehashing of a tawdry, pathetic tale that has become a national obsession. Enough already.

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08/24/01: On replacing Helms
08/22/01: Politics takes a summer holiday
08/15/01: The resurfacing of AlGore
08/13/01: You can go home again
08/10/01: Governors' Conference drought
08/08/01: Governors defend their turf
08/06/01: New Bush muscle with congress
08/03/01: America's benign neglect
07/30/01: Where is the fear factor?
07/26/01: Dubya, Nancy Reagan and the Pope
07/23/01: Bush's congressional dilemma
07/19/01: Katharine Graham, giant
07/11/01: Finessing election reform
07/09/01: Listening to, and watching, Ashcroft
07/06/01: New comedian in the House (of Representatives)
06/27/01: Spinning Campaign Finance Reform's latest 'headway'
06/25/01: When Dubya says 'the check is in the mail,' you can believe him
06/22/01: The push on patients' rights
06/20/01: If you can't trust historians, how can you trust history?
06/18/01: World Refugee Day
06/13/01: Remembering 'Hubert'
06/11/01: Ventura faces government shutdown
06/06/01: McCain doth protest too much
06/04/01: Memo to the Bush daughters
05/30/01: Missing in action: Democratic outrage
05/30/01: Honoring World War II vets
05/23/01: Lauding the Nixon pardon
05/21/01: Messin' with McCain
05/18/01: A great movie plot
05/16/01: The level of public sensibility these days
05/14/01: "I am Al Gore. I used to be the next president of the United States"

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