PARIS — Europeans often seem bewildered by Americans' fascination with the private lives of politicians, but, for the most part, European commentators have shown a surprising degree of understanding of the way politics worked in connection with the fall of Gary Hart.
The French press, for example, does not take to political sex scandals. Stories dealing with such incidents are regarded by French journalists with contempt, the province of their Anglo-Saxon colleagues in Britain and the United States.
Yet, in the Hart case, French newspapers have been quick to caution readers not to look on the former presidential candidate as a victim of Anglo-Saxon puritanism. Character and truthfulness, the newspapers say, are the real issues.
Change of Pace
The British, meanwhile, have tended to look on the Hart affair as a fascinating change of pace, a departure from domestic peccadilloes. West German publications have generally deplored the press's peering into Hart's private life but, at the same time, have objected to his behavior.
In Italy, where philandering has an honored history, a good bit of sympathy has been expressed for Hart. The Japanese press has reported the Hart incident but virtually without comment. Mistresses are not unusual among Japanese political figures.
Israeli reaction was summed up by a young woman who suggested that, if an Israeli politician were caught in an adulterous affair, he "would probably be condemned with one hand and get a friendly slap on the back with the other."
In France, the harshest criticism came from Le Monde, France's most influential newspaper. It concluded in an editorial that the American press, still suffering from its "Watergate syndrome," did not know where to stop.
But Baudouin Bolleart, Le Figaro's Washington correspondent, wrote that it would be wrong to look on the American press as "the spearheads of a new puritanism." In fact, he said, polls show that Americans are more concerned about protecting privacy than about exposing sexual scandals. "Puritanism," he said, "is no longer what it was."
British tabloids reveled in the affair. The Sunday News of the World offered a double-page spread under the headline "Amazing Round-the-World Sex Campaign of the White House Contender."
Spectator, the conservative weekly, said the Hart affair was "an un-American sort of scandal" and added: "Their scandals are more often to do with money than with sex, and their newspapers are not given to snooping on political leaders. Indeed, the whole thing has a disturbingly British feel to it."
The West German news magazine Der Spiegel says in the current issue: "Poor Gary, poor Democrats, lucky America."
Die Welt commented: "Gary Hart did not die of a smear campaign created by others but created by himself."
Younger West Germans are generally tolerant of politicians' infidelities, provided they are not flagrant. As the Sueddeutsche Zeitung Munich put it: "Hart could be forgiven for being a womanizer but not for his lying and for his catastrophic offer (to let reporters follow him)."
Older West Germans expect rectitude from those in public life, but the German press is highly discreet about reporting such matters, particularly if the politicians are reasonably private about it.
Some European newspapers have taken the stand that the way a politician conducts himself privately does not necessarily reflect the way he would conduct the public business.
De Volksrant of Amsterdam said: "Narrow-minded morality can play a legitimate role in relations between individuals but is unfit to decide if someone is eligible for the responsibilities of the presidency."
Vittorio Zucconi, a political columnist for the Rome newspaper La Repubblica, commented: "If we add adultery to the potential causes behind a political crisis, we would never have another government in Palazzo Chigi. Is America going crazy? The wind of scandal is literally decapitating the political personnel of the most powerful and influential nation on earth."
Japanese newspapers have long held that "matters below the navel of a politician" are not to be discussed. Editors and reporters have known about the mistresses of public officials, including prime ministers, but they have never written about them in the major newspapers.
At least three prime ministers since World War II are known to have had mistresses, and at least one prime minister's wife is said to have had a lover. Accordingly, the news of Hart's troubles caused little commotion in Japan.
Staff writers Tyler Marshall in London, William Tuohy in Bonn, Don A. Schanche in Rome and Sam Jameson in Tokyo and bureau assistant Yael Hedaya in Jerusalem contributed to this story.