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COLUMN LEFT/ ROBERT SCHEER : When the Media Indulge in Voyeurism : History shows no correlation between presidential behavior as a spouse and ability to govern.

<i> Robert Scheer, former Times national correspondent, has written extensively on national politics. </i>

What if Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been caught in his marital infidelity by a zealous press, enabling Herbert Hoover to retain the presidency? Would we have come through the Depression as united and strong as we did?

Would we have been better off if similar revelations had led to Dwight Eisenhower being knocked out in favor of Adlai Stevenson, Richard Nixon elected instead of John F. Kennedy or Barry Goldwater as the alternative to Lyndon Johnson?

Biographers of those four presidents have provided ample evidence of extramarital relations both inside and outside the White House. All clearly had an understanding with their spouses that was, to say the least, tolerant. The historical record shows no correlation between a President’s behavior as a spouse and his ability to govern. Indeed, if such a connection exists, it then could be argued that American presidents who were unfaithful--including even the revered Thomas Jefferson--did better by voters than their more chaste counterparts.

I don’t know if Bill Clinton has been monogamous, but I would hardly be shocked if a saxophone player who went to college in the ‘60s didn’t sometimes stray. How many of the reporters and editors working this shoddy story would want their own personal lives subjected to the puritanical standards that their articles and video reports implicitly embrace? Anyway, isn’t all that after-hours stuff their own business? And shouldn’t that be the case for the Clintons as well?

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One would have thought that the voters answered that question in the affirmative when they elected Clinton President despite his and his wife’s admission to a less-then-perfect marriage. “I have acknowledged wrongdoing. I have acknowledged causing pain in my marriage,” Clinton told CBS’s “60 Minutes” when the story first broke last January. “I don’t think being any more specific about what’s happened in the privacy of our life together is relevant to anybody besides us,” Hillary Clinton added.

Back during the election, it was possible to argue that coverage of the couple’s marriage might be justified as an indicator of how well they would function as the First Family. But we no longer need to speculate on that. In their one year in the White House, the Clintons have demonstrated that they are extremely effective as a team. Not since Eleanor Roosevelt have we had a First Lady who can so perfectly supplement her husband’s talents and interests. It’s one thing if voters end up disliking this couple because their program proves flawed, but surely they have already proved their dedication to service--or, at the least, their workaholic tendencies.

There is no legitimate journalistic excuse for this preoccupation with the previous peccadilloes, real or imagined, of the President. The issue keeps coming up because it titillates the audience rather then being relevant to how we are governed. That is why the media spent so little time examining the actual programs that Clinton implemented as governor of Arkansas while being easily distracted by any whiff of personal scandal.

As a result, we still know very little about the effectiveness of Gov. Clinton’s social programs, particularly welfare reform and job creation, which he is now attempting to implement nationally. Better to look critically at the meager results of his so-called “Project Success” in his state than compile yet another catalogue of his interaction with other women. But alas, the stuff of governance is by comparison boring, dealing as it must with statistics and theorems rather than memoirs of mistresses and tales of state troopers.

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This last group, a governor’s security detail, is in a class all its own as a source for fanciful stories. First off, no man is a hero to his valet, a role to which those who guard famous personages are often reduced. They are forever running errands and covering their boss’s tracks and resenting it. They get their chance to turn the tables and reap some financial benefits when the local official goes national and the media buzzes around. Reporters in this state know there was no shortage of security people who protected Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown, two of the most squeaky-clean men alive, eager to supply wild tales once those former governors ran for President.

If improper pressure has been put on these troopers or jobs were offered, then out with the facts and let’s determine if any laws were violated. But in the meantime, spare us yet another regurgitation of the salacious details that only reduce media pundits to the level of tawdry voyeurs.


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