Nav Bar

Nav Bar
ETHICS

Bill Remple, Reporter, Los Angeles Times, who helped break the Troopergate story.

Stanley Crouch, Author, Notes of a Hanging Judge.

Larry O'Donnell, Former chief of staff for Senator Moynihan.

Paul Taylor, Former Washington Post Reporter; Director of The Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition, a group instrumental in getting networks to donate free air time for presidential candidates.

Susanna Lessard, Journalist who wrote the first article for the New Republic about the relevance of womanizing and political life.

Interviewed July 10,1996.


FL:

Can we discuss the issue of reporting on Gennifer Flowers' accusations against Bill Clinton?

REMPEL:

The issue of his personal life had already been raised by the time a team of Times reporters went into Little Rock. And raised by the Gennifer Flowers story. Which most of us were critical of. I was critical of it. I didn't think it was a fair thing to be dealing with in a campaign that had to do political issues. But once in Little Rock and spending some time looking into the background of this man who we didn't know outside of, in California he was not a household name in 1992, we got lots of people who came to us or we came across in the course of our reporting who had stories to tell about his personal life that were potentially scandalous, were controversial certainly, and were in the same context as the Gennifer Flowers story.

And so we had to take into account that we were being told these stories and we had to figure out what we were going to do with them. And some of them, we developed a standard. We had a couple of boxes on the desk at the hotel we turned into our office and one box was for one kind of personal problem and this one was for another. And the standard we applied we call it, I'll call it the Little Rock standard because we had a more descriptive one, was if his personal life, was strictly personal, if it was an affair with a woman, or it was an affair, it went in this box. If it was an affair that had some bearing on his public office or conduct of his public office, we had to consider that differently.

And the Gennifer Flowers story actually raised one of those issues that shows you the difference and that is she claimed that Clinton tried to help her get a state job and in fact did help her get a state job. Well by that standard, this affair became a more extraordinary event in the public sense. In that now, in exchange for the sex she got him to do ... a favor for her that benefits her financially. Well, that kind of standard was what we tried to apply. So we wouldn't even consider looking into the others that had no such public impact.

Sex is a very difficult subject for reporters to deal with. Editors are especially sensitive about it. But it's this personal area; it's not an area that we want to go into routinely. Journalism 101 doesn't deal with what you do when you are confronted with these kinds of stories, there's no precedent really for it. And reporters like anyone else consider some things to be very personal and it's uncomfortable to even inquire into them. I mean imagine going knocking on a door as a reporter and asking if they'd had sex with Bill Clinton. I mean I didn't want to do that, it's not a, it's not something that you relish, a chore that you relish doing. Even if the conduct does fit in this box over here where it's a question of whether his public off -- his public authority was being used and traded and otherwise abused in this area. So contrary to maybe some opinion, this is not a controversy reporters really want to spend a lot of time in.

But in '93 with the troopers we had a different situation where we had people who actually were firsthand witnesses to this kind of conduct, they alleged that they were themselves used as foils and as procurers and as guardians of Bill Clinton, kept his privacy during these moments. And it was our judgement after a lot debate inside the L.A. Times between editors and reporters and even among reporters, that this was a story in which it appeared that Clinton's personal life was used as public office in this pursuit of this very personal pursuit. So we had to, we had to look into it. It had to be inquired into and we had to find out whether it was something we could show actually happened.

I mean, the first the first step is, you find out, you decide, well, is this an area worth inquiring into. Is there a fundamental, a public right or interest, a right to know or an interest in knowing? Is this an appropriate place to inquire. After you that, then you've got to be able to establish that the allegation has basis. Enough basis to be discussed. I mean so there's a couple of hoops to jump through here. And so you need corroboration, you need documentation, you need something to go along with it. But we made the call and I think it was the appropriate one ... because of the allegations having some impact on Clinton's personal or on his public conduct, that that personal conduct became relevant for the discussion.

CROUCH:

Well personally, I guess maybe it has something to do with my literary background and the fact that I've heard all kinds of stories about people for many years from when I was in the civil rights movement 35 years ago, most of which turned out to be true, they weren't stories then that were told outside of the organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership or CORE of SNNC.

I don't really care that much. I mean, you know if they find out that Christy Todd Whitman has got 18 guys on the side, ranging from the age of 18 to 80, and she still runs the state of New Jersey well, I don't really care. If they find out that Hillary Clinton's got 8 guys in the CIA that you know when they change guards she changes, you know, I don't care personally. Because my reading on American history is that the question finally is whether or not the person is sufficiently devoted to what we sometimes refer to as the public interest to get the job done. Say a guy like Mark Fuhrman. I don't care what his opinions are. All I care about is when he comes to work, puts on his badge and his gun, from 9 to 5 acts like a professional, that's enough for me. Now if he wants to put on a t-shirt and drink beer and salute a picture of Adolf Hitler or say the country is being destroyed by darkies and chinks and Jews and this and that, if he's that's kind of guy, that's his business. Now if we were of course to catch him in the middle of an Aryan brotherhood meeting, then we might be rather disturbed to see him there one day, and the next day in a police car. But cops like everybody else if they really believe in doing their job, they do their job.

So we're in a period where the personal has become so politicized that we don't really know how to address real uses of power and real abuse of power. See Steven Ambrose was saying something very interesting recently, he was saying that he thought as a historian that the reason why his new book about Lewis and Clark is being so well received is he says, "Well, you know we're at a period where people want, you know, the people are far more interested in flawed heroes if you will, than the old time squeaky clean ones 'cause nobody believes that anymore." He says this old guy like Meriweather Lewis who had all kind of problems but still got to Oregon, you know he's appealing to 1996 audience in a way that he might not have been appealing in 1956, when we still had the belief that you know the good guy was good all the time.

See all I want somebody to be is good on the job. That's really all I want, I actually want him to have American interests across class, race, sex, personal preferences in mind. If they do that, it's good enough for me, I don't care whether they're republican or democrat [or] what their political past is, I don't care what their sexual proclivities are, I don't care about any of that. When they come out there when they get on the phone and they say look I want you to vote for this bill, you vote for this for me, I'll do that for you, if it come[s] out in [the public] interest, I'm for them.

LESSARD:

I have been thinking about the issue of Clinton's personal life and the relevance that it has to his public performance, and our willingness to vote for him against my experience quite a long time ago in 1979 when I was asked by Mike Kinsley who was then the editor of the New Republic to write an article on the issue of whether philandering was a feminist issue. And that had to do with Teddy Kennedy's campaign for President at the time. And I agreed to do what we call a think piece, and in the course of writing that piece I found that there was tremendous reluctance on the part of any sort of person who w[as] involved professionally in politics to talk about this not so much because they wanted to protect the privacy of the candidate, as that [it] was just tremendously uncool to do so. To consider this a serious matter. Particularly feminists who perhaps were still in a vulnerable position, it's hard to believe now in a way, Washington has become, the feminine presence is much much higher than it was even that short time ago. The problem was appearing naive. And certainly, no one also wanted to appear judgmental.

Feminists spoke to me, and said yes, it did disturb them, the reports of Teddy Kennedy's behavior did disturb them and it did affect their opinion of him as a potential candidate. But they would not go on the record saying that and the men I spoke to almost universally thought that it was not an issue. In any event I wrote my article which really didn't focus so much on the feminist issue in the end, I wrote that I thought it was an issue of mental stability. That there was a line somewhere, I didn't know exactly where it was, but there was a line between an affair, two affairs, even three affairs, and a kind of compulsive womanizing which really didn't have that much to do with sex even in the normal sense in the sense that you speak of it, as, well he was a handsome guy and he liked women and women liked them. And that sounds so comfortable, and such a pleasant position to take.

But I think there is, I decided anyway, I feel that there is a different issue here and it's one that's sort of still breaking into our consciousness, much as alcoholism has broken into consciousness. When I was in Washington in the '70s, nobody regarded drinking as something that could be reported on that was also private life. We now know about alcoholism, we know it's a disease, we know it's a progressive disease, we know that someone in the grips of that disease may have their judgment impaired whether they are drinking or not at a given time. And I think we also know that it might not be that important depending on the office, it might not be that important, but we certainly wouldn't want an alcoholic President, that' s for sure. We might not care so much about an alcoholic Senator, if he was tremendous in some other areas.

As for the womanizing issue I don't think the understanding of it is that clear but I think there has come to be an understanding very different from, say, the '60s sensibility of, say, sex as the great feeling of liberation from the constrictive '50s that many of us grew up with. That there is that, and then there is something else that is harmful, that is harmful and destructive to both people actually, to the perpetrator and the victim as well. And I think that that is the issue and the recklessness that comes with compulsion is also the issue. That's what I wrote in my piece which was a very mild little think piece.

Marty Peretz, the publisher of the New Republic, when the piece came in refused to publish it, and Mike Kinsley resigned because of that, and as a result it became a kind of cause celebre which was written about in Time and Newsweek though the piece itself hadn't appeared. As a result of which I got this reputation as being expert on Teddy Kennedy's sex life. And was sort of in the rolodex of Der Spiegeland The Midnight Sun, [laughter] and after that they'd call me up to find out the latest.

But after that I tried to get this little piece published, and I tried everywhere that one publishes little think pieces and I could publish it nowhere. No one wanted to touch this. And again there was a reluctance to publish this piece in a way that I think it's a boundary that we want to approach very very cautiously.

What's interesting to me is that we finally did prevail on Charlie Peters at the Washington Monthly, both Mike and I are alumni of the Washington Monthly, and Charlie, though loathe as every one else to be associated with an anti-sex stance, was forced by Mike and myself to do this under siege, since we were under siege. And so it was published, but not that widely read I don't think. What's curious to me is that four years later we have the Gary Hart campaign and this became a very big issue with all the newspapers involved. What happened in the intervening four years I don't know, I haven't been able to figure that out. The experience was certainly very very different.

And so something is afoot in the culture here and I think that it is a kind of collision or rip tide in a way between two sort of extremes of thought or intuition almost, you might say, which has to do with what I mentioned before of a feeling of reluctance to judge other people's personal behavior, of feeling that the erotic in particular is a rich personal area that should not be subjected to public scrutiny, that indeed we do not want to rouse the sleeping dogs of moralistic public on the right, that it goes against all our principles, and on the other hand, an understanding as happened again, as I said with drugs in particular, we now have a very different understanding of drugs than we had back then as well.

So there's a kind of growth of consciousness in the direction of what these kinds of behavior that we once thought of as denoting a quite liberated or experimental or expansive personality, certainly in the area of sex, a glamorous earthy person with a big heart, a sensual person, a warm person, perhaps even you know I mean...[in Jack Kennedy's case]... the people in the White House weren't that sorry that that seeped out, it wasn't so bad for him to have that reputation, sort of in the underground there. Whereas today it's a different matter.

FL: With regard to Clinton specifically...

LESSARD:

I think that the the situation that we are presented with Clinton brings together all these contradictions and that one of the curious things that I find about this is that though things change so much in those four years between '79 and '83, that here we are many many years later and I'm still as perplexed about where the line is and where the relevance is. Here should we be doing this, should we not be doing this?

And I find myself looking at it though with the same -- I've developed my standard which is different from yours, I think it's good, though, that we all try to develop some standard, some measurement, some restraint. I still look at this -- is this the kind of reckless, demonic, compulsive behavior that could be reflected elsewhere, in a President who commands, you know, the control of enormous armed forces and many ... situations in which one does not want to have a reckless person?

Or is this a question of some sort of soft weakness of character here that well, yes, it's disappointing but not that relevant. In all cases, I would say, rarely would be the issue on which one would decide pro or con. But I think the question of whether or not we ought to be looking at it is fairly clear. I think we ought to be looking at it, but with great discomfort. And I think our discomfort is to our credit. And that when we become really easy and comfortable with it, that's when we should be worried.

O'DONNELL:

Well I can't presume to come up with idea of exactly where the journalistic line should be on these stories, and I don't think the press ever will come up with a line. This is a country where we don't have laws governing that, unlike the United Kingdom where they do.

We don't have rules, we just have a very sloppy set of conventions. The L.A. Times has one, the Miami papers have another, the New York papers have another, the New York Post has a different one. And then in the same market place you have the National Inquirer and all these other outlets. And so, politicians just have to know that there isn't the line, that there's no predictability to this. That what is included as relevant in 1980, you know, will not necessarily be relevant in '96. And so it makes their lives an extremely unpredictable one when they throw themselves in these campaigns.


continued

stories of bill | stories of bob | interact | photo gallery | four colloquies | readings | reactions | tapes & transcripts | explore frontline | pbs online | wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation
SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Prison StateApril 29th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS