Sex, lies and editorials

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:

Jan. 20
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. May 9
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:

"Gossip and the Age of Unenlightenment"
[Robb] has not, after all, said he is running for President. At this point he's not even a true national figure. The quality of Robb's character — whether noble or less than that — can hardly be said at this time to be a matter of consuming public concern. Responsible journalists cringe at the fecklessness of fast and loose juggling of rumors and innuendo. They are embarrassed by self-righteous claims that a plunge into tawdriness has the high purpose of telling the public what it must know to make sound decisions. In the matter of a politician's character the public of course has a right to know; but to know what, and when? The short answer, we think, is that democracy is served when the electorate is informed of what is relevant to a candidate's qualifications for office, and when this information is made available at an appropriate time. In our view, the attack on Robb was neither relevant nor timely.

The board had good reason to be a bit tougher with Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood, who was charged with sexual harassment that made Gov. Schwarzenegger's groping look like handshakes. And he tried to hide it. The board also didn't spare readers the details:

"He is Very Sorry Now, of Course"
Dec. 14, 1992
Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) confesses that he finally gets it. He finally understands that bosses can't flirt, joke suggestively, touch or in any other way sexually harass their employees…. Before his recent reelection, Packwood was asked by the Washington Post about allegations of sexual harassment and other misconduct. The veteran senator initially denied all and assailed his accusers. More than a dozen women would come forward. After the accusations were published and wouldn't go away, Packwood — like other politicians who have gotten into trouble — then blamed his problems on booze. Alcoholism is certainly a disease, and the senator has taken steps to deal with it. However, excessive drinking cannot excuse offensive or criminal behavior. Packwood's apology last week was an appropriate start, but it is not enough…. "How Much Longer, Sen. Packwood?"
May 18, 1995
The ethics panel said it found "substantial credible evidence" of a pattern of sexual misconduct by Packwood over 21 years. The charges against the Senate Finance Committee chairman grow out of 18 incidents of alleged sexual harassment involving 17 women. The committee also found substantial evidence that Packwood had violated federal law by altering personal diaries that he knew or should have known the panel would seek in its investigation. Among the accusations: fondling a campaign worker, grabbing and kissing a staff member, forcing his tongue into the mouth of a former staff assistant after leading her into a room in the Capitol basement and running his hand up the leg of a restaurant hostess and touching her crotch.

But the board spilled the most ink on, of course, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, from which we bring you just one selection, since the board was sick of this story long before it was over:

Aug. 18, 1998
"Seven Months Late"
Cornered in a trap of his own making, President Clinton has acknowledged to a federal grand jury that he had an inappropriate relationship with a young intern in the White House and then, as most of us already had guessed, he lied about it in statements to the American people…. Yet even as he apologized, Clinton sought to score political points by questioning the motives of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. Americans have a right to feel disappointment in this president. The key question is this: Will Clinton's actions on Monday be enough to satisfy the public and to appease Whitewater counsel Starr and members of Congress? Barring some dramatic new disclosure, Clinton should be able to survive the final two years of his second term in office…. Americans do want to forgive and try to forget. We all know more about the confessional president than we ever wanted.

That December, the board went easy on Louisiana Congressman Bob Livingston, a loud voice against Clinton, only vaguely referring to his extramarital affair. In case you're curious, Livingston resigned in part because of the allegations, and was succeeded by David Vitter, not exactly a beacon of morality.

House Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.) admitted that "on occasion" he had been guilty of his own "indiscretions." On Saturday Livingston shocked his colleagues by announcing he would not serve as speaker and would resign from the House in six months, one more life scarred in this year of scandal.

But the board did hammer California Congressman Gary Condit, who wanted disclosure from Clinton but did everything he could to keep quiet his relationship with a young intern who turned up dead. Of course, the board noted, that's because a missing girl is more troubling than adultery:

"Condit's Unseemly Silence"
July 6, 2001
When was the last time you heard of a congressman skipping Fourth of July parades in his own district? Ever since Chandra Levy, a 25-year-old Bureau of Prisons intern from Modesto County, disappeared in Washington May 1, Rep. Gary A. Condit (D-Ceres) has been underground. Police have repeatedly pointed out that there may not even be a crime behind Levy's disappearance and that Condit is not a suspect in any case--which makes the congressman's stance particularly inappropriate…. New allegations make Condit's behavior even more troubling. Anne Marie Smith, a 39-year-old flight attendant, told Fox News that she and Condit had an affair over the past year and that, once Levy disappeared, the congressman's attorneys asked her to sign an affidavit stating that she and Condit were never romantically involved. Condit's lawyers have acknowledged that they sent such a statement…. Back in 1998, when Bill Clinton was trying to hide his involvement with Monica S. Lewinsky, Condit declared that Clinton should end the 'drip-drip-drip .... You can't close this issue without getting all the information out there.' The disappearance of a person is far more serious than adultery — all the more reason Condit should have heeded his own words.

"Just Say No, Gary"
Dec. 11, 2001
America's understandable distraction with terrorism after Sept. 11 shouldn't be misread as acceptance of Condit's behavior and persistent dissembling. Because he's no longer on Page 1 for refusing to talk forthrightly about the mysterious disappearance of a young woman is hardly reason to vote for somebody. It is, in fact, a very good reason not to vote for him…. The congressman has, perversely, grown even more defiant. " ... I have been mistreated in terms of my civil liberties," he told The Times' Mark Z. Barabak…. We remember another politician, also full of self-righteousness and also named Gary (Hart) who bristled at those who asked questions about so-called private matters…. Note to Condit: As a campaign strategy, defiance will get you only so far.

Two years later, the board addressed the charges discovered by its newsroom colleagues against then-gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom the board would come around to support:

"Muscle and Meanness"
Oct. 3, 2003
Arnold Schwarzenegger's gubernatorial campaign didn't appear to require much damage control after six women claimed that as long ago as 1975 and as recently as 2000 he groped and otherwise sexually harassed them. Nonetheless, before cheering crowds, the movie-star-turned-candidate energetically dismissed the report in Thursday's Times as "trash politics." At the same time, he apologized to any woman he had offended when he "behaved badly" on "rowdy movie sets." Blaming the media and charging opponents with running a dirty campaign are time-honored tactics for deflecting unwelcome scrutiny. And what better way to keep a would-be scandal from escalating than to issue a blanket apology — after his spokesman's blanket denial…. Maybe that's what voters want this time: to have the class bully on their side…. Problem is, a man who describes humiliating waitresses, secretaries and stuntwomen as "playful" seems an unlikely champion of the little people, including those who would vote him into office. If only the waitress who said he asked her for a crude favor had followed her instincts and poured that hot coffee in his lap.

And then there's Mark Foley, center of the perfect sex-scandal storm: homosexuality, underage partners, and transcripted dirty talk. Here's what the board had to say on Oct. 3, 2006:

The scandal surrounding disgraced Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) is following the familiar Washington pattern, with one side (Democrats, in this case) alleging a coverup and the other (Republicans) railing about a setup…. The episode should serve as a cautionary tale for all employers, particularly ones who bring youths into the workplace. Foley resigned Friday after the ABC News website reported salacious instant messages that Foley had sent in 2003 to a male teenager who had been a House page. ABC's revelation, however, came about a year after members of the House leadership were made aware of the allegations about Foley, a deputy Republican whip and chairman — it would be impossible to make this stuff up — of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children…. Foley's lawyer announced that the congressman had checked himself into a rehab program for alcoholics, as if drinking too much could somehow explain his attempt to seduce boys one-third his age. A different kind of rehab may be in order for the inattentive lawmakers and staff who oversee the pages.

And for those of you who made it this far, here's the editorial board's round-up of sexual scandals far and wide, and proof that kink is really a bipartisan effort:

"Cheaters who prosper"
July 6, 2007
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the latest in a long line of political leaders to be caught having an extramarital affair…. Perhaps it's more perception than reality, but it seems that Democrats' sexual shenanigans do more damage to their political careers than Republicans' do. Examples of Republican leaders who have gone on to enjoy long and fruitful political careers after dumping or openly betraying their spouses include GOP presidential front-runner and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who cavorted publicly with his mistress and famously announced his divorce in a news conference before he had informed his wife; Sen. John McCain of Arizona, another presidential candidate, who remarried just one month after his 1980 divorce; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who divorced his first wife while she was recovering from cancer surgery; and our own Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, elected by a landslide despite widespread allegations that he took an overly hands-on approach toward female co-workers. Democrats whose careers have crumbled after being caught with their pants down include onetime presidential candidate Gary Hart, whose campaign floundered when his affair was discovered; former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, who lost his job as Housing and Urban Development secretary in the Clinton administration after lying about an affair; and former Rep. Gary Condit of Modesto, brought down by revelations that he'd had an affair with slain intern Chandra Levy. President Clinton's dalliance with Monica Lewinsky led to an impeachment and helped torpedo Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign. This theory is by no means foolproof. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, remains popular despite an affair with his campaign manager's wife. Former Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) was unseated in the mid-'90s amid groping allegations that would make Schwarzenegger blush. But it may well be that Republicans are better at using their opponents' sexual peccadilloes against them, summoning up the moral outrage among voters that can be deadly in a close race. It also doesn't help roving-eyed Democrats that women are a mainstay of the party, and women don't appreciate men who cheat. Villaraigosa, a Democrat who is widely believed to have his eye on the governor's desk in 2010, should keep all that in mind. Of course, none of it may matter if the political handicappers are correct: Villaraigosa's main competition in the gubernatorial race might well turn out to be none other than Newsom. Let he who is without sin sling the first mud.

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