Everybody loves a good political sex scandal — the ritual apologies, the jokes, the schadenfreude, the self-righteousness (from everyone else, of course). But The Times editorial boards of old tended to stay out of the graphic, cheeky media hype, refusing to opine on some of the most lascivious of political tales — from 1970s prostitution stings, the 1983 congressional page corruption, to Larry Craig's quasi-outing last year. When it did pronounce on the lewdness of our elected officials, the board's tone ranged from disappointed to dismissive as it strove to put sex scandals in the context of their wider political relevance, whether as part of wider corruption or crimes, a character flaw in a major leader, or as a reason for some meta media and political analysis.
Only at the turn of the last century did the board indulge in juvenile jabs at a scandal-ridden politico, one Grover Cleveland, whose opponent tarred him with a slogan that would make today's political attacks look like tea party talk. (Cleveland won, by the way.) During the first year of his presidency in 1885, The Times made light of his affair with Maria Halpin, who alleged he fathered her child:
We thought Belva [a presidential candidate who claimed voter fraud] would make trouble yet, and here it is, right upon us — or rather upon "one Grover Cleveland." With Belva Ann Lockwood and Maria Halpin both after him, "the aforesaid Cleveland" may find it expedient to resort to the underbrush.
Governor Hoadly, of Ohio, calls President Cleveland "the Lord's man." It's hard accounting for such delusion, but there's no Halpin it.
Decades later, after LBJ aide Walter Jenkins got caught having a good time at a YMCA with another man, the board delicately avoided the details, but managed some red-baiting, in an Oct. 16, 1964 editorial:
The arrest of White House aide Walter Jenkins on a morals charge is a personal tragedy for all concerned. It also comes as a deep shock to the nation. It is unfortunate that such a scandal should break less than three weeks before a national election in which far greater issues are at stake than the personal behavior of one man. However? it is inescapable that the episode will become a factor in the presidential election? There is no reason to suppose that Jenkins is other than a loyal American. But it is commonly recognized that persons suspected of deviant conduct are vulnerable to blackmail attempts by the Communists. As a result they are denied security clearances. Yet Jenkins apparently had access to secret information both before and after Mr. Johnson moved to the White House.
In the 1980s, the board spent considerably more time on Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart's escapades, with increasingly harsh headlines:
"Hart and Danger"
May 6, 1987
Hart said it was all innocent, his consorting with a younger woman, but if innocent, not normal for an ordinary man truly wanting to preserve his troubled marriage, and most certainly not normal for a candidate for President for whom the old "character" issue was rapidly crystallizing into the issue of "womanizing." Hart, one of his campaign aides told Dionne, liked "to court danger." In 1987 he courted danger, and in the end embraced it.
"Please Sit Down, Gary"
Sep. 10, 1987
Hart says that he will seek to serve in an even higher capacity than President: as a patriot. Just what that means was not made clear in the interview, except that Hart wants a national forum in which to discuss issues, including the role of the media in investigating the private lives of public figures. Somehow Hart wants to make the leap from disgraced politician to statesman in a single bound. In spite of his confession and professed contrition, Hart still does not seem to understand what all the fuss was about, and why many thoughtful political observers have been so disturbed for so long — long before Donna Rice — about Hart's character and judgment. The most patriotic act that Hart can perform for the rest of this presidential campaign is to watch it from the sidelines — quietly.
The moralistic tone was all but gone in The Times' May 2, 1991 take on Virginian Democratic Sen. Charles Robb's alleged fling with a beauty queen — mostly because the allegations weren't proved at the time, and also, it seems, because he wasn't a big political player just yet: