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Jewish World Review July 25, 2001 / 5 Menachem-Av, 5761

Chris Matthews

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Consumer Reports

Journalism's 'sex-plus' rule -- YOU need a license to write about a politician's love life. It's called "sex-plus."

Here are the rules: If it's a boozy sleepover, finished off with English muffins and French coffee the next morning, it's not a story. But suppose that the excellent young woman a politician meets in a crowded room the night before doesn't show up for work the next day. What if she leaves the face of the earth? Does anyone in the world think that's not a story?

"Sex-plus" is the news reporter's rule of engagement in Gary Condit's Washington. It is the same one that applied in Jack Kennedy's day.

Jack, as we know now, had this long-running thing with a gorgeous Jackie look-alike named Judy Campbell. He engineered each rendezvous with better precision and more secrecy than the Bay of Pigs. He had the room number. She would be ready. He would have a bottle of liquor on the table to make it seem like a party. Twenty minutes later, he would be heading down to the hall to count delegates with Bobby. Judy would be headed back to her other boyfriend, Sam Giancana.

Ah! The "plus." Although it's not reportable that a politician has a very pretty girlfriend from the outside world, it is very reportable if that world happens to be the Mafia. If there's one thing worse than dipping your pen into the company inkwell, it's dipping it into the "family" inkwell. You don't need to be Tony Soprano to know that bit of professional etiquette.

So we could've -- should've -- would've written about that one. What stopped us -- I love speaking for the journalistic priesthood -- is that we didn't know. Jack Kennedy knew how to keep a secret. Like Spencer Tracy and Kate Hepburn in the old days, he knew that before some editor could hand-wring over whether to report a story, he needed to have a reporter bring the news to him.

JFK went to great pains to keep editors from such painful decisions. Once, he had the estimable Adlai Stevenson meet him at the Carlyle in New York, only for the U.N. ambassador to realize that the embarrassingly brief meeting was a cover for a more extended stay with someone a tad more entrancing.

Keeping the lid on an affair also means dating girls hornier for you than they are for publicity. Judy Campbell didn't drop the bomb on him when he was the hot frontrunner in the New Hampshire primary. She waited until Jack was as dead as Julius Caesar.

Bill Clinton either couldn't pick 'em that well or wasn't as nice to them afterward.

Gennifer Flowers called a festive New York press conference to celebrate the announcement of her affair with a certain Arkansas governor. She brought along a party favor: a homemade tape of Big Bill in full schmooze instructing her on the art of the cover-up. Clinton, who unleashed his flacks to say the tape was "edited," blew the denial by apologizing to Gov. Mario Cuomo for comparing him on the tape to a "Mafia" captain.

But the "sex-plus" rule held its ground. Despite the glitter of the Flowers press conference, the quality newspapers buried the story. The New York Times' morning-after account, slugged "Clinton Attempts to Ignore Rumors," ran on page A-16. The Old Grey Lady's first mention of the Gennifer show-and-tell came in the 14th paragraph.

Monica was different. This sex story had "pluses" in spades. She was an intern working under the president. As an affair, this was pure workplace drama. If you define the president's workplace to include the backroom sink, this one never left it. As an earlier occupant might have put it, this was a sex deal "of, by and for" the workplace.

The bigger "plus" was an American president's denial of the whole thing under oath. When you're trying to keep a story out of the newspapers, perjury is a bastard. So is the suggestion that you're trying to get the girl a job in New York to keep her mouth shut. So is the fact that she had spilled the entire story to the one workmate she knew for a fact hated the boss.

So what are the rules for Gary Condit? The same as they were 40 years ago: Your relationship with Chandra Levy was your business. You kept it that way by taking her to quiet restaurants in the countryside. You didn't flaunt it. Neither did you abuse your authority. Chandra was not in your charge. She didn't work for you, didn't work for the Congress. You met her off-campus. You dated her off-campus.

So far, so good.

But then something happened. She disappeared, and you refused to tell the police what you knew about where this young woman spent her time, what this young woman was dealing with, what her life was all about. For 10 weeks, you let the D.C. police search without clues and her parents suffer without hope.

That, Congressman, is the terrible "plus" that makes you as big a part of this story as the lost Chandra herself.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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