WASHINGTON — In 1987--Gary Hart and Donna Rice. In 1991--Clarence Thomas and Anita F. Hill. In 1998--Bill Clinton and Paula Corbin Jones. Three dramatic incidents, all raising the same question. When does private sexual behavior become a legitimate public issue?
Hart's experience seemed to demolish the boundaries between public and private. From now on, the press and political operatives assumed, everything was fair game. But that was an overreading of the message. People didn't really care about Hart's private behavior. They cared about his public character and judgment. What bothered voters was that Hart sounded like a hypocrite. This was, after all, the man who said when he announced for president, "Since we are running for the hold ourselves highest office in the land, all of us must to the highest possible standards." His behavior appeared reckless. The very weekend the scandal broke, he was quoted daring the press to follow him around.
Hart got back into the 1988 race at the last minute to let the voters decide. Their judgment turned out to be harsh. His sexual behavior mattered because it said something important about him.
The Thomas episode raised the same question: Is sexual behavior relevant? The answer was "yes," if it can be construed as sexual harassment. Thomas' confirmation hearing turned into a trial. "After a brief discussion of work," Hill recounted, "he would turn the conversation to a discussion of sexual matters. His conversations were very vivid." It came down to "he said" vs. "she said." To vote against Thomas was to declare him guilty of sexual harassment. Since the charge could not be proved, and the crazy logic of the situation demanded he be elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hill raised the country's consciousness about the seriousness of sexual harassment. Before her testimony, the charge was a joke. It was not even on the political radar screen. Hill established a new boundary: When sexual conduct crosses the line into sexual harassment, it becomes a public matter. After Kathleen E. Willey's appearance on CBS' "60 Minutes" last month, Hill said, "I'm encouraged that women who know their rights and understand what they may come up against . . . if they have a solid claim, will come forward."
What was the first thing the American public heard about Clinton back in 1992? They heard Gennifer Flowers say, on Jan. 27, "I was Bill Clinton's lover for 12 years. For the past two years, I have lied to the press about our relationship to protect him."
From that, and from the controversy over his draft record, voters concluded that Clinton had character flaws. But they also believed he could solve the country's problems. People had to decide whether his character flaws were so serious that he could not do the job.
No, said the one person who should have been most concerned by those character flaws. "I think my husband has a very strong public record," Hillary Rodham Clinton said in 1992. "We have a very strong marriage, we are committed to each other . . . and we are just going to let the American people make their own decisions about these accusations." Meaning: If I don't care, why should you?
Americans knew from the outset of the 1992 campaign that they did not want to reelect George Bush. But their doubts about Clinton were so serious, they flirted with the idea of voting for Ross Perot. It took a year for Americans to decide to take a chance on Clinton. Most didn't. Clinton won in 1992 with 43%. Another 19%, many of them skeptical about Clinton's character, voted for Perot. The voters took a calculated risk when they elected Clinton: that he could do the job, and that his character problems would not create a constitutional crisis.
By 1994, they wondered if they had calculated wrong. The voters didn't like Clinton's liberal policies on taxes or health care or gays in the military. That year, Jones raised the dangerous issue of sexual harassment. The voters sent a signal in the 1994 midterm: Maybe electing Clinton was a bad bet.
By 1996, however, they concluded the bet was paying off. The economy was booming. Clinton was doing his job. And the GOP Congress gave him cover to abandon his earlier, more liberal agenda and move to the center.
Concern over the president's character flaws did not go away. But Clinton convinced voters that he could keep his personal problems separate from his public performance. How? By demonstrating the same skill he had shown in the 1992 campaign--a remarkable ability to focus. Clinton reassured the country: I can handle this.
Clinton had enablers to back him up. Most conspicuously, his wife. "When the truth comes out," the first lady said about the Jones suit, "this, like all the other accusations that have been made against us for so many years, will fade into oblivion, and the work that the president has done will stand the test of time."