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Bush Brouhaha: Character Issue Reaches New Heights--or Depths : Rumor: Trolling for personal hypocrisy, the national media is now working in a climate where just about anything seems to be fair game.

August 16, 1992|Suzanne Garment | Suzanne Garment, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics" (Times Books)

WASHINGTON — At first blush, last week's story about George Bush and his alleged mistress seems, in Ross Perot's word, "goofy." It rests on the say-so of a man who is conveniently dead. What is more, he never claimed firsthand knowledge of an affair; he only said he arranged adjoining rooms in a guest house and it made him uncomfortable.

So why is this news? Because we are in the first presidential race since the emergence of today's "character issue" in which two rival camps are trying hard to exploit it. You may think you are already sick of the whole subject, but rest assured you will be sicker by November.

Let us review the history of the allegations against Bush: The woman involved is a longtime Bush employee. In the 1980s, running his vice presidential office, she became unpopular for restricting access to her boss. Journalists investigated the rumors about her and came up empty. Stories surfaced briefly in the 1988 race, but went nowhere. Last month, Spy magazine published a piece of some length investigating the rumors. But Spy is not on the map of Washington journalism, and the story never caught fire.

Meanwhile, Bill Clinton was tarred by the adultery issue when Gennifer Flowers accused him in the Star of having been her lover and produced tapes of her phone conversations, she said, with the governor.

In an April interview, Hillary Clinton began evening things up by talking about Bush's alleged affair. Then, this month, the story about the guest house appeared in a new book. "Democratic activists," as one article described them, began faxing the book's relevant pages to reporters.

Flowers' evidence may have been less than airtight, but this story was considerably thinner. Yet, it was not a despised "supermarket tabloid" that took the bait. The New York Post put the story on its always-dramatic front page.

Then the escalation started. A CNN reporter asked Bush about the story in the middle of a press conference at which he and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin were announcing U.S. loan guarantees to Israel. Bush called the story a lie.

In a separate interview, an NBC reporter asked whether the President had ever had an affair. "The issue of character has been raised in this campaign," the journalist said, to justify his inquiry, "even by your own people." He asked other personal questions: How would Bush react if his granddaughter had an abortion? If a grandchild was a homosexual? "There are some who feel," the reporter explained his interest, "that the phrase 'family values' is a kind of code and an indirect condemnation of people who choose different lifestyles, like homosexuals."

These questions and rationales are signs that the character issue has reached imperial heights. This issue, as we know it, was born in the late 1960s. At that time, we started hearing that the personal was political: We had to know about a politician's personal behavior to know whether we could trust him in office.

Still, this rationale for examining politicians' sex lives left some pockets of privacy unrifled. Some extramarital affairs were so discreet we could not say they showed a politician's imprudence. Some were of such long duration we could not claim they demonstrated instability. And some officials had such long public records we could not say we needed still more clues to their performance.

Even apart from problems of evidence, these exemptions played a big part in protecting Bush from scandal--until now.

This year's campaign tussle over character has its own logic. Each side tries to demolish the other's comparative advantages. Each tries to exploit the enemy's every potential embarrassment.

Under such prodding, journalists will find themselves asking not "Has this affair affected public performance?" but, "If we write about one guy fooling around, don't we have to write about the other guy fooling around?" or, "How can he talk about kindness to animals when he declawed his cat?" Thus campaign pressures make the character issue even more indiscriminate. Almost any sort of personal hypocrisy looks like fair game.

Is it fair? With Bush, some of it is at least inevitable. Because he is a modern President, he has become a symbol of the values he and his party espouse. An immense amount of personal examination goes with the territory.

But the playing field is not quite level. Republicans are at a disadvantage because many journalists think the GOP's invocation of traditional family values is an inherently hypocritical code used to condemn homosexuals and single mothers. Indeed, it sometimes is--and journalists will happily say so whenever they see daylight between conservatives' public and private behaviors.

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