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Invasion of Privacy Now Is Bipartisan

If it's proper to examine the president's behavior, why not that of other officeholders?

September 22, 1998|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor

What a bunch of crybabies. While continuing to subject the president of the United States to the most intensely partisan public humiliation in our nation's history, the Republicans now claim that their own private lives are off limits. And the media, which has exploited every sordid, salacious twist of this tale, suddenly want to call timeout on the invasion of privacy lest the inquisition veer off into their own sacred precincts.

Forget it. There is no turning back from this tawdry journey. If it's proper to examine the president's past sexual behavior to pursue old civil lawsuits, why not that of other officeholders or of nonelected pundits claiming to be outraged at the president's behavior. Don't we have a right to know if any of the talking-head TV personalities or politicians who so arrogantly stand in judgment of the president's character have themselves faced sexual harassment or divorce suits or adulterous affairs in which they shaded the truth?

Don't we now have the right to examine the moral consistency of groups like the Christian Coalition that claim to the be the final arbiter of our moral standards? Why, for example, does its leadership continue to support the congressional campaigns of Reps. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho) when all have admitted to adulterous affairs in which, unlike Bill Clinton, sexual intercourse did occur with a married person? And in the Scriptures, isn't consummating an adulterous affair a more serious transgression than spilling the seed on a dress?

Pat Robertson called Clinton "the poster child of the 1960s" in an address to the Christian Coalition convention last week. But Hyde's five-year affair with a married mother of three, which led to her divorce, took place during those same wicked '60s. Clinton did not break up a marriage, but Hyde, who, as House Judiciary chairman, will sit in judgment on him, did.

Burton, who pilloried Clinton as a "scumbag," fathered a son out of wedlock, then denied his existence. Both Burton and Hyde went further than merely coveting their neighbor's wife, yet the Christian Coalition chooses not to challenged their moral fitness for office.

Chenoweth's affair occurred in the '80s; does that make her a poster girl for the social conservatives of that era? Or is the poster boy for the '90s Steven R. Johnson, an ultraconservative GOP Indiana state senator who last week admitted that, while married, he had an affair with an intern a la Clinton?

The much-maligned social movements of the '60s did not invent sexual infidelity, as Scriptures will confirm. It is true, thankfully, that sexual hypocrisy eroded during that decade. However, lying about sex was hardly fashionable and the deceit and unequal power relations of Clinton's sexual affairs would not have been well-received then. But the generation that tried in vain to hold presidents accountable for lies about Vietnam, where more than a million innocents died, is not likely to get worked up about hiding an affair between two consenting adults.

Adultery is as American as apple pie, and while one may bemoan that reality, it's absurd to identify home-wrecking with the liberalism of the '60s. Indeed, one might just as irrationally attribute Clinton's disorderly sexual habits to his unhappy Southern Baptist upbringing, which included spousal abuse, alcoholism and divorce.

The effort to destroy Clinton is, as Robertson indicates, an attempt to even scores that are generations old. Thanks to this vengeance, dangerous precedents have been set, beginning with the assertion that a politically motivated civil suit can be the basis for subverting a presidency and ending with publication of the rawest of unvetted file information, FBI reports and non-cross-examined witness testimony. The sex scare launched by Starr and legitimized by the GOP-led Congress makes Joe McCarthy's red scare pale in comparison. And we are only at the beginning.

The sex scare of the '90s, like the red scare of the '50s, will claim its own. There will be no shortage of those with scores to settle against former friends, business associates, spouses and lovers who are suddenly in the political limelight. No one in public life will be safe from this smear. For future presidents, the disgrace of impeachment, rarely invoked in our nation's history, will become the norm.

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