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Moratorium on Mud

Because Texas Gov. George W. Bush has begun his exploratory campaign for president, does he now have a glaring red target painted on his back? Has Bush suddenly exposed himself to a scorched-earth investigation of his past for any hint of scandal, indiscretion or lapse of judgment? Almost certainly, yes.

Bush is not alone. All potential candidates--including Elizabeth Dole, who joins the fray this week--face such a threat. Bush is a particularly enticing target because he has been thrust so quickly and unexamined into the national spotlight. And he has acknowledged that he committed indiscretions as a young man, although he says he is confident there is no hidden incident that might doom his candidacy if revealed.

Bush’s confidence will not deter some from digging for dirt. They may be sleuths from opposition campaigns or reporters for “news and information” media that range from dubious Internet services and supermarket tabloids to the mainstream daily press and television news. This is, after all, the land of free speech and a free press.

But it may be time to pause for a deep breath: the start of a new campaign and the first election following a year of political turmoil stirred by the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton matter. This is a logical time to reflect on what lessons may have been learned from the recent years of increasingly unrestrained reporting on the private lives of politicians. Both the media and the American people should think anew about what qualities we need in a leader and just how much we need to know about a candidate.

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Some personal matters are important. Voters need to know whether the candidate has some physical condition that might interfere with official duties or has exhibited a consistent pattern of behavior that indicates faulty judgment. But do we need to know whether a candidate smoked marijuana during a college bash, had an isolated affair years ago during a stormy period in a marriage or had an abortion as a teenager?

This is not to suggest that President Clinton’s deplorable behavior in the White House should not have been aired and thoroughly debated. In fact, the furor was about sex as well as perjury and conspiracy. A president conducting a sexual liaison with an intern in the White House demands critical public examination. A majority of Americans condemned Clinton’s actions but decided correctly he should not be removed from office--a more balanced and considered judgment, certainly, than that of the House impeachment managers.

But we should think twice before rushing into print or onto the air with stories of past indiscretions that have no relevance to a candidate’s ability to perform the duties of the office he or she seeks. And a knowledgeable public must discriminate between fact and rumor and must carefully judge sources of information.

There is no absolute line between responsible reporting and the spreading of fodder for shock or titillation. Each case must be judged on its own merits, within the general context of a campaign.

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History offers no clear guide. It tells us that Abraham Lincoln served heroically in perhaps the most dangerous, stressful period of American history, even though he suffered severe depression. Could he be elected now? Former Sen. Thomas Eagleton was dropped as Sen. George McGovern’s running mate in 1972 after it was disclosed he had undergone electric shock therapy. How should candidates and the press deal today with the widespread use of new drugs to counter depression?

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston S. Churchill, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy all had dark corners of their personal lives, we know now, yet they still are lionized as leaders.

A particularly pernicious development since the last election has been the proliferation of Internet sites that carry all sorts of gossip, innuendo and undocumented allegations in addition to real news posted by responsible organizations. This information flows directly to millions of computer users daily, often bypassing the traditional screening and editing procedures designed to verify information and judge its import. In the past several years, major newspapers and television networks have cited Web sites as sources for news reports that later were found to be false. In some such cases, these news organizations violated their own rules about independent verification before passing along the information.

There is no magic solution to this problem. What media managers must do is what they are trained to do: determine whether a report is accurate, weigh its context and relevance and decide whether to publish or air. Judgment is critical. Good judgment must not succumb to the frenzied pressure of competition or the temptation to publish for fear of missing some obscure flaw in an official’s psyche.

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The danger of indiscriminately printing and broadcasting may be difficult to quantify, but its impact is real. We’ll never know how many qualified people are deciding not to run for office because a withering personal examination might devastate their personal lives even if nothing of substance was found. And the use of scurrilous or irrelevant allegations against political enemies has eroded public confidence in our elected officials and the entire political process. If you throw enough mud at a politician, some of it is bound to stick.

Ultimately, the voter must decide what is real and important before making a judgment at the ballot box. Most of the American public had the good sense to discern the appropriate response to the Clinton scandals. As the presidential campaign for 2000 kicks off, let us all use such common sense to reject the unprovable and the irrelevant.


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