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Confessing to Being a Lousy Dad

What kind of family values has the self-righteous Rep. Dan Burton been living by?

September 09, 1998|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor. E-mail: rscheer@robert

In this season's spirit of preemptive confessionals, let me make one of my own concerning out-of-wedlock children before I call Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) a scumbag. Not an elegant description, I know, but since that is how the chairman of the House Reform and Oversight Committee referred to the president of the United States, whom he claims to be impartially investigating, it does seem somewhat appropriate.

"This guy's a scumbag, that's why I'm after him," Burton told editors of the Indianapolis Star. Which House Speaker Newt Gingrich promptly defended as the statement of "an honest man who uses a clumsy word."

Not quite so honest, it turns out. Burton has now conceded that as an Indiana state senator, he had an adulterous affair with a state employee that produced a son. A bit late in owning up, since no father is listed on the teenager's birth certificate. Nor had Burton ever publicly acknowledged his now-15-year-old son's existence, confirmed by blood tests more than a decade ago, until Vanity Fair reporters began breathing down his neck. Burton's brother, Woody, a GOP Indiana state legislator, told the Indianapolis Star that he only learned of his nephew last week when the story broke.

Not eager to court such exposure myself, let me admit that I, too, have an "out-of-wedlock" past. But as opposed to Burton, my father gave me his name from the day of my birth and much love and guidance thereafter. My father may have erred, but he did not take it out on me and my mother by leaving my patrimony in doubt. He was a good man, torn by the conflicts of love complicated by the consequences of sex.

Like those pro-lifers who oppose abortion because it's their life that might have been terminated, I have never rushed to judgment of those who produce children outside the confines of marriage. If not for adultery, I, and many other upstanding taxpayers, would not be here.

For that reason, I was loath to condemn Burton, until I read his sanctimonious statement of apology. It read like something Bill Clinton could have written, blasting his enemies for leaking the story to the media, which then hounded friends and associates with "tasteless questions" about his personal life: "I'm not going to talk any more about my personal life. Enough is enough."

Thanks to the Ken Starr tribunal, enough will never again be enough. And since the exact tone of one's apology for moral transgressions is now considered all-important, let me observe that Burton's was lame: "I have accepted my full responsibility--financial, everything. It's all been done in an agreeable way." That is like Clinton saying, hey, what's the problem, I gave her gifts, didn't I?

Surely Burton understands that personal moral probity has been made the tyranny of the day. And the "character issues" raised in his case are far more serious than those facing the president. Burton has consistently received ratings of 100% from the Christian Coalition for his commitment to "family values." He must know that making belated child support payments to a son you never see hardly qualifies as responsible parenting. Not a word of contrition about the harm he brought to his son, whom he refers to as "the boy," by having denied his existence.

That's it? A monthly check in the mail, but you never get to know your own father? Or was the boy told who his father was and then pledged to silence, leaving him to feel guilty, as if it's he who did something wrong by being born? Either way, Burton perpetuated the stigma associated with the word "illegitimate," widely used to denigrate not adulterous parents but rather their progeny.

Why have family-values conservatives not risen to denounce Burton, this hypocritical moralizer, for failing his duty as a father? Indeed, Indiana's Christian Coalition chairman termed Burton "very brave" and warned, "Judge not lest ye be judged." Good point, but why not apply that standard to Clinton?

The intimate lives of politicians should not be the stuff of public scrutiny. Dan Burton should be judged as a legislator, not a father, Bill Clinton as a president, not a husband. Neither is a scumbag, but rather they are like the rest of us, flawed folks trying in our finer moments to be better than we are, and often woefully failing.

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