Sex Scandal Extravaganza!!!
Over the weekend I posted the argument that unlike with other elected officials, in today’s modern media world we tend to pick presidents based more on “likability” than qualifications, experience or record. My Jumping-Off-Point was the Gary Hart scandal from 1988, and one of the interesting conversations in the threads was the topic of why some political sex scandals are get widely reported and others don’t. The seemingly obvious answer is bias against one party, but this doesn’t hold up so well. For example, the press had the opportunity to report on the rumored infidelities of George H.W. Bush and John McCain, both GOP nominees for the office of President. They chose to run with only one of the two. The GOP talked for years about a Constitutional amendment that would allow foreign-born citizens to run for president so they could run popular California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. His out-of-wedlock child was talked about for years without editors pulling triggers; and yet Herman Cain – a candidate no one really took seriously – had his indiscretions dissected at the drop of a hat. What sells a sex scandal is the tittilation of sex, but the sex itself is rarely the true transgression. The conversation in the threads led me to this mental exercise: If I were the editor of a major newspaper, which of the big political sex scandals would I have run with early, and which would I have held off on?
In order to do this, I needed to start off with a “given” and a number of ground rules. My given was this: I don’t have a problem with sex in and of itself, and I tend to think for the most part what happens between adults in private is their own affair. Which means, just because someone had sex doesn’t mean that it should be newsworthy. My ground rules are as follows:
1. Since part of what I wanted to do was see how I would match up with actual editors, I needed to judge each case on what was known or suspected at or just before the time the story “broke.” Because of this, you’ll see that there are several cases where I believe I would have made a call to run (or not) that I would eventually have regretted.
2. I am assuming I am just the story editor, and not the layout editor. So I am not going to go into questions about whether something should have been front page, or above or below the fold, or really anything except should the story should be run or held.
3. In this exercise I am a Lou Grant-type editor, and my job is to be a crusty champion of “news, dammit!”; whether or not we gain or lose revenue by my decisions is not my concern.
Keep in mind that I make no claims that these decisions are capital “g” Good or capital “r” Righteous. They are simply a way for me to put myself in someone else’s shoes for an hour to see what I might learn. WIth that said, here are the choices I would have made:
Sex Scandals that Are Really About The Abuse of Power
Bill Clinton: Run Story
No need to wait till the end to tackle the biggest of the big: As I’ve said in greater detail here, the real-world scandal was about oral sex and false testimony, but it should have been about the inherent abuse of power that takes place in sexual harassment cases. As I said back then:
But in all of the “who’s sleeping with who” hubbub, hardly anyone focused on what should have been the real issue, which was this: The President of the United States, the most powerful man on the planet, had chosen to fool around not with a model, or actress, or porn star. Rather, he chose a young, powerless and less than fully emotionally mature intern-turned-staffer whose work fate he directly controlled. And when she appeared to perhaps have unrealistic feelings about where the relationship might be heading, the White House unceremoniously shipped her off to work at the Pentagon.
So not only would I have run the story, I might have run it before the major outlets had, and I certainly would have pushed for more of the angle above, and less about was or wasn’t Linda Tripp a “real” friend.
For the exact same reasons detailed above. Tim Mahoney is put here because abuse of power trumps most other kinds of scandal, but he also would have fit nicely under the Not Really About The Hypocrisy category below.
John Ensign: Run Story
His relationship with his female staffer and her husband were so tangled and bizarre that I tend to view it differently than I do the above cases, and might have gone against grain by holding the story. But there were so many other red flags about extortion, payoffs, misuse of campaign donations, etc., that I would have run it in a heartbeat.
John McCain: Run Story
Unlike the W. H. Bush story, the troubling part of McCain’s rumored entanglement was that there was a lobbyist involved way, way, way behind the scenes. Were it true then there was at the very least the appearance of undisclosed conflicts of interest, and at the worst the trading of legislation for, um, favors. Because of this I would have run the story.
Note: This is one of the instances where I’d have run the story at the time and later regretted it. Big time. This piece of dynamite was thrown into the pond, but after the ensuing explosion not a single fish rose to the surface. So this decision would have haunted me later.
Sex Scandals That Were Just Deserts
Revisionist history tells us that the GOP’s “real” problem with Clinton wasn’t that he had an affair, but that he lied about it under oath. Take it from someone that went thorough the damn never-ending affair, that was the line that taken after the public didn’t bite on the “he had an affair!” shouting – and after all the above scandals came to light.
For many, many months it was a given that there were a certain group of GOP officials who would be on the news nightly saying that any man with the audacity to cheat on his wife should be thrown from public office. And then every single one of them was caught in their own outed picadillos, one after the other. It was probably after the eighth subsequent scandal that the GOP started saying it was never really about the sex after all.
Because I thought Clinton should have resigned for the reasons detailed above I’m a little chagrined to admit this, but I thought this was awesome. I really, really enjoyed it.
Sex Scandals That Aren’t Really About The Hypocrisy
I don’t have a big problem with hypocrisy per se. Telling your teenage children they should take the time to pack healthy lunches and then going through the McDonalds drive through because you lost track of time seems to me to be the very definition of being human. So if someone ever says being faithful to one’s spouse is a good thing, I’m not so sure I have a right to dig through their mail to make sure they’re a saint. But if you run your campaigns and seek donations on the issue of sexual morality, that’s a different matter. Either you are making an argument that based on the criteria you truly believe we should be voting on you are not qualified, which seems worth noting… or (far more likely, I believe) you’re OK with your lifestyle and yet have no issues with demonizing others on the same score. Of all these categories, this is the one that is almost entirely GOP dominated. This has less to do with the morals of GOP elected officials, I think, and more to do with the fact that they are far more likely to run campaigns on the issue of sexual purity.
(Quick aside: One of the things I’ve noticed about the Obama’s recent SSM proclamation is that certain GOP establishment types are now pointing out that folks like Cheney and others in the Bush administration have always known that SSM is OK. Since part of the Rove-driven Bush administration strategy was demonize gays to get more votes, money and power, I’m not sure that this observation speaks as well for Cheney et al as those GOP establishment folks think.)
Note: I’d have gone with the Mark Sanford story, partly because of his penchant for running on the morality card, and partially because it appears that he used public funds to arrange meetings with his lover. But if I’m being honest, after his famous press conference I’d regret it just a little. His statement seemed so sincere, so human, and at the expense of whatever his handlers surely told him to say that I think I would have had more than a touch of regret. Call me a softy.
Sex Scandals That Are Really About Heinous Crimes
In all of these scandals it isn’t the sex that makes them newsworthy, it’s the heinous crimes attached to each: seducing underage minors (Wu, Goldschmidt, Foley), committing sexual assault (Ganley, Adams) or murder (Condit). I’d have absolutely run all of these stories.
Note: It probably goes without saying, but I would have deeply regretted running with the Gary Condit story. In fact, of all the decisions I’d have regretted, this surely would be the biggest.
Sex Scandals That Were Mostly About Sex
These stories seem to have more to do with people’s personal lives than anything else, and even though they’re public figures I’d have been hard pressed to run with the stories. Some involved prostitutes, but not in ways that transgressed the public trust (as opposed to AG Spitzer, above). Weiner made his weirdness public himself and had a funny last name that tied in really well (and was really obnoxious to boot), but I’m not convinced that those things made the story worth writing about. Thurmond is such an interesting case that I’d OK a book about the subject, but at the time the story broke it just seemed too archaic to really matter as anything but a historical footnote.
Note: Despite my not running any of the stories above, I think time would have proven me wrong about both Hart and Edwards. Not that either’s affairs were in and of themselves worthy of all of our nosing in, but because subsequent information seems to have shown that those scandals were what eventually uncovered what awful, terrible and unserious people they were – completely unfit for public office, let alone the presidency.
So there you have it, there are the decisions I believe I’d have made. I know that many will disagree with my choices to run, my choices not to run, and my later regrets alike. And I’m sure someone will bring up a scandal or two that I did not think of off the top of my head.
AFTERTHOUGHT/UPDATE: I probably should have said, but in a lot of these cases the decision to run or not run was actually tough to make. (Weiner comes to mind, and I say that not just so I can type the phrase “Weiner comes to mind.”) If anything, I should note having attempted this mental exercise makes me a bit more sympathetic towards editors in general.