Bedroom Doors Have Been Opened, and Closing Them Looks Unlikely

Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

The air in Washington was gray and heavy with the weight of an approaching storm Wednesday afternoon when the Internet magazine Salon released its story that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) had conducted an extended affair 30 years ago with a woman whose marriage unraveled shortly afterward.

Storm clouds were appropriate. It may have been at precisely that moment that Washington was forced to contemplate exactly how hard a rain is going to fall if--as now seems inevitable--Congress spends the next half-year or more clawing over whether President Clinton should be removed from office for trying to conceal a sexual affair.

Anyone familiar with gang violence or ethnic warfare will recognize the cycle that's developing. Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr infuriates Democratic partisans by releasing far more explicit detail about Clinton's affair with Monica S. Lewinsky than he needed for his legal case. Salon fires back with the story about Hyde. House Republicans fume at the humiliation of their colleague, and then vote to compound Clinton's humiliation by releasing the videotape of his grand jury testimony.

Hyde didn't even provide any of the usual pretexts reporters use when justifying the release of such a personal story. Hyde hadn't run advertisements attacking Clinton's character (like Idaho Republican Rep. Helen Chenoweth, who was then forced to admit a past affair with a married man); he hadn't been excessively moralistic in discussing Clinton's problems (like Indiana Republican Rep. Dan Burton, who was then forced to admit he fathered a child out of wedlock); and he had never claimed to be unblemished.

Yet Salon, reflecting the views of many Democratic partisans, concluded that no more justification was needed than the underlying fact that Hyde was now presiding over a potential impeachment inquiry inextricably rooted in judgments about Clinton's sexual behavior. "Ugly times call for ugly tactics," wrote Salon's editors in a grimly utilitarian explanation.

Seen from that angle, the release of the Hyde story was both depressing and inevitable. And, despite pledges from both Republican and Democratic leaders late last week to discourage more personal attacks, there's no reason to believe that this bloodletting will stop with Hyde. Maybe much of the mainstream media thinks the sexual outing already has gone too far, but it is hardly in a position to ignore new revelations about key congressional decision-makers (sexual or otherwise) after examining Clinton's behavior so exhaustively. Besides, the real lesson of the Hyde story is that today no one--not the major papers, not the networks, not the newsmagazines--can control the flow of unsavory information.

Several newspapers (including the Los Angeles Times) wouldn't bite on the story when a friend of the aggrieved husband came peddling it in the last few months. Not that it mattered much. Once Salon printed it, Hyde was forced to acknowledge it, and the major papers (including The Times) printed the account the next day.

Nor is there any reason to think this will stop with Congress. Several of the potential Republican presidential candidates in 2000 already have declared that they've never strayed in marriage. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) recently suggested that politicians who've broken their marriage vows over any extended period may want to find another line of work. (Too bad we hadn't laid down that standard earlier. Maybe we could have spared the nation from the leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower.) All of this is virtually daring the press, and political opponents, to poke through more bedrooms in 2000.

And why stop with just the candidates? Isn't it relevant to assess the sexual history and moral standing of the conservative and liberal talking heads--not to mention the reporters themselves--passing judgment on Clinton's character every day? Already on "Meet the Press," host Tim Russert has asked conservative author David Brock whether he renounced his critical views of Clinton because Brock was "in love with [a] former press secretary for Hillary Clinton." Well, maybe some of Clinton's fiercest critics are so angry at his behavior because of repressed guilt about their own adulteries. Shouldn't we be asking them all?

Better to ask if that is truly the country in which we want to live. In Washington today, as in all communities, at all moments in human history, the supply of scandal is limited only by the depth of human frailty, which is to say that it is essentially unlimited. In his classic political novel, "All the King's Men," Robert Penn Warren memorably expressed this reality when he had Willie Stark (his fictionalized version of Huey Long) send a young aide to unearth the single bit of dirt that would destroy an upright judge standing in his way: "Man is conceived in sin, and born in corruption," Stark said. "There is always something."

Intuitively, the American public understands that simple, powerful truth. That's why in polls, most Americans have made clear that they see Clinton as deeply flawed but not defined solely by his flaws. Repelled by his behavior with Lewinsky, they continue to see in him qualities--empathy, effectiveness, vision--that they admire. Most Americans, in other words, are adamantly refusing to judge Clinton on the basis of this monumental mistake alone.

Yet Washington is spiraling down into nihilistic politics where the partisans of each party search for the single personal failing--the "something"--that can disgrace and destroy the leaders of the other. For voters and potential candidates alike, that's a bleak landscape to contemplate. (Texas Gov. George W. Bush last week suggested that the warfare over Clinton has him reconsidering whether he wants to subject his family to a presidential campaign.)

Standing on the edge of an impeachment process that threatens a monumental escalation in this war of ethical annihilation, the leaders in both parties may want to reconsider, in these last moments, whether they really have sufficient cause to plunge the country into that abyss.

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