Nav Bar

Nav Bar
O'DONNELLL:

But the ultimate issue in all of this seems to be can we find in someone's sexual conduct or in some other pattern of personal behavior, something that informs us as to how they will govern. And I have to tell you that from my experience working in the Senate as the chief of staff of the Senate Finance Committee ....... And I could not once find a single moment where anything about these personal stories that you hear about these politicians, was informative to the way they actually govern.

And the most illustrative case of this is Bob Packwood. When he was Chairman of the Finance Committee, and throughout his career as a Senator was really really good at this work. Bob Packwood was a master of everything that came before him professionally. And he had the most complex issues that would come his way on that committee, international trade, welfare, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. He never missed a beat. He was never late a minute, his concentration was never broken, even when he was under this intense scrutiny of ethics committee investigations. We now know that Bob Packwood, all along, had an extremely undisciplined, chaotic, kind of wild personal life. But the more you knew about that, the less it was capable of informing you about how he would actually govern.

So I think we just have to come to a reality recognition here which is these stories are always going to be coming up, and the judges of what to do with these stories are not editors, the judges are voters. And they are evolving in their judgement of these stories. 1992 was a major moment for the American voter to decide, marital indiscretions, don't matter to half of us at least. Somewhere in the order of 50% of the electorate didn't let that influence their votes.

As the press tells us more and more and more about these people, we may well be on our way to becoming kind of French about this. And it might be, twenty years from now that we could accept the idea of the head of state having a mistress, and as Mitterand did, having a child with another woman, and that child given a prominent position at his funeral when the day comes. It's it's not that the French have laws against reporting this stuff. It's that the French press knows that the French public doesn't particularly care, and that the French public kind of assumes this.

FL: Would you talk a little bit about the response inside the Senate when the Gennifer Flowers [story] broke....

O'DONNELL:

When these stories break about politicians, within the world of politicians there's extreme reluctance to talk about it. So you pick up what other senators think of the Packwood situation by inference and by half of a phrase here or there that they mention in the dark of night. When the Clinton scandal started to break in New Hampshire, in '92 over Gennifer Flowers, there was first of all the assumption that this candidate was dead. And certain Washington politicians started to make phone calls about should they jump into the race.

But the other thing that was very thick in the air was how could he be that stupid? How could he be on the phone to her and being tape recorded and not suspected that he would have been tape recorded and all of that and it didn't for a minute give them pause over how he would govern, it simply made them think this guy can't run a campaign. It didn't for once, make any of them think if he ever got to be President, there'd be a problem in dealing with him. In fact to a certain extent, it humanized him in a way to some Washington politicians who didn't otherwise, have any personal connection to him. So it when those things break within the cult, it has a very, it was a very complex set of psychological interactions going on there.

TAYLOR:

I'm here because I'm the reporter who achieved his fifteen minutes of Warholian fame or notoriety as the fellow who asked Gary Hart the question in 1987 -- have you ever committed adultery? And I gotta tell you, I was confused then, and it's now almost a decade later and I'm still a little bit confused over the extraordinary bruhaha that that question in particular set off. And let me review the bidding, because it is a decade ago and maybe some people have forgotten the juicy details, but Hart was that frontrunning Democratic candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination, he had just announced his candidacy, and there was a whole spade of stories as he announced. He had run in '84 and had been the principle challenger to Mondale but had faded in the end, but he now comes in '87 as the front runner. And there were a lot of stories around the time that he announced saying, there was a line in a lot [of] stories that journalistic convention was in third or fourth or seventh or eighth draft, plagued by rumors of womanizing. That was the way it was dealt with and it struck me and I was a political reporter for the Washington Post, this was not proper, this was not journalism 101, this is rumor mongering.

If he is plagued by rumors of womanizing, and you think that's a serious issue, go out and report it, if you don't you know, don't just pass it on that rumors exist.

Tom [Fiedler] who was the political editor for the Miami Herald wrote a front page column saying exactly that and I remember reading it thinking boy, he is dead on. The next day he gets a call. And this is the way most of these stories originate. He gets a call from an anonymous tipster, Oh so you don't think Gary Hart's got a womanizing problem huh? Well I've got a girlfriend, blah blah blah. And one thing leads to another, and it develops that the girlfriend of this anonymous tipster is Donna Rice and the Miami Herald chooses to send a reporter up there is told that Donna Rice will be having a weekend rendez vous with Gary Hart that coming weekend in Washington why doesn't the Miami Herald go up there and take a look. And they decide to go up and take a look. And they stake out his Capitol Hill apartment and indeed there was an attractive blond woman in and out of that apartment that weekend. They ran a story about it. Gary Hart denied everything, denied any impropriety, said the stake out was flawed, said it was a terrible story, he gave a speech the following day to the American newspaper publishers saying this was the shoddiest of journalism and this was the trouble with modern politics is this kind of snooping around, it debases the currency of politics.

And he said look, I've been in public life for 25 years, I've always held myself to the highest standards of public and private conduct and that's how I should be judged, not by some some shoddy stake out. The following day, he held a press conference it was the first time he took questions, and I was the reporter covering Hart and it seemed to me, I felt a little bit like an attorney sort of on cross examination, that Hart in his one public response to this had said judge me by my record here. And Hart like a lot of other politicians, had been over the years subject to these rumors that he was a womanizer, so I asked him a lot of questions. Said, look, you asked us to judge you by your morality, let us understand what your morality is, do you consider adultery to be immoral. And he said he did. And then I said well have you ever committed adultery, and he said in effect I really don't have to answer that question. Which I actually think was the right way to respond. I don't think anybody has to answer that question in any setting. I did think under the circumstances it was an appropriate question to ask, however, and I still think that.

Now what happened then, was, his candidacy collapsed that night. And he got out of the race, and the political interpretation quickly became, oh well, I guess this means that adultery is a disqualifying sin now, adulterers can no longer run for President, and we are unable as a political culture to sort of accept this, and I guess it also means that now since we asked one front running candidate whether he ever committed adultery, we now have to--in our sort of check list of questions that we ask these candidates --we have to ask them all. Indeed I think the New York Times developed a questionnaire which they sent around to all the other candidates about adultery. And I just was sort of flamboolzed by all of this. And it seemed to me, as we've all been discussing today, there aren't any clear standards, there are no sharp and bright lines on any of this stuff, you sort of have to take every case as it comes.

It seemed to me in the Gary Hart case, you had a set of circumstances for better or worse where the question was begged by the circumstances and by the response and by the denial. And I believe then, I believe now, we don't ask this adultery as a threshold question, we don't go in inquiring about the sex lives of candidates as a threshold test because it is a very slippery slope.

Fast forward to four years later to the Gennifer Flowers incident with Bill Clinton, I took it as a sign of in some ways the maturing of the political culture. That in some ways, the Gennifer Flowers episode was more damning. In the Gary Hart episode, you had reporters, they weren't literally, but figuratively had looked through a peephole and said something untoward had happened, but neither principle, neither Hart nor Donna Rice said anything untoward had happened. Here you now have one of the principles, one of the alleged principles saying I had what was it, a twelve year affair with the Governor of Arkansas and I've got these love tapes to prove it. And it's very difficult for a society, any society, even the French I would assume, not to spend a few days anyway tittering about that.

What impressed me about that in the end that the way everybody handled that situation. I don't think the press had any choice ultimately, but to report about it. But it was interesting for the first few days of Gennifer Flowers as I recall, I think in particular the New York Times made an effort to bury it on page A-14, this doesn't meet our standards of propriety here, we don't want to invade his privacy. But the truth is, in the real world of political campaigning, it became very quickly impossible to ignore. I think the good news was the system worked it through. That everybody took their positions and we're a nation of 260 million people and we've got 260 million views as to how much this tells us, how much interesting material this gives us about someone who would be our maximum leader.

But we got beyond it. The Clintons were successful in deflecting the issue, and I think we ought to take some comfort in that. I think that in the end the important jury is the American public, they turn out to be a pretty mature jury, they do impose their will on these stories. I think the lesson for journalists is in areas of personal life and in particular and in areas of sexual life tread very gently. But it's difficult, it's often difficult to ignore them.

And I think that, one of the realities of modern politics, is television. These leaders come into our living rooms and our dens and they are living breathing human beings. And it seems to me in modern politics, it's not position papers we elect, it's not ideologies we elect, it's living breathing human beings. The politicians present themselves, their autobiographies become their platform, I am the man from Hope, I am the man from Russell, Kansas who survived this terrible war injury. Curiosities develop about who they really are. I think most voters and citizens are wise enough to know that it is dangerous to perhaps draw inferences from private behavior to public behavior. I think sometimes there are connections I think sometimes there aren't. I don't think there is a road map, and I think most people understand that. And in the end I take solace that our final jury is a pretty sensible public that doesn't get fooled too often.

O'DONNELL:

I think you're exactly right that the ultimate judge is the voter and what confronts the journalist is what do you tell the voter. How much do you share when you know something? do you tell it or do you keep it a secret? And in the past, it was always a tradition of the press to keep this sort of information a secret. It's sort of if you're an insider in the press corps, you know about Kennedy, and you know about Hart, but you don't tell the public about it.

I think that has changed-- it's changed for the reasons we've talked about here. Clearly what happened in '92 is the voter made an informed opinion because the voters knew all about the Gennifer Flowers allegations, and they said, more than 50% said, doesn't matter. At least that one issue isn't a deal breaker.

REMPLE:

The public in fact in '92, did not know all about the Gennifer Flowers accusations. For the very simple reason. The real dynamic here in the press editorial decision is what not what do we tell the public, it's what do we protect the public from. What information don't we trust them with? The New York Times handled Gennifer Flowers in a relatively small way. The only daily newspaper I'm aware of that printed the entire transcripts of the Gennifer Flowers telephone tapes was the New York Post. The New York Times who's trying to print as little of this as possible because it didn't trust the voter using this information in a rational way. In the end, the New York Post gave the New York voter everything there was to know about it, The New York Times tried to give as little as possible, and Bill Clinton won the New York primary, and he was the state of New York in the final election. I think the press tortures itself over how much do we protect the public from in these cases in a world where we now have enough evidence that the public can handle this stuff, can handle it just fine.

CROUCH:

See, I think that the the path toward the public growing out of a out of a naive attitude towards politicians and key people with great power begins after WWII with Joe McCarthy. I think that his rise and his fall, destruction of people, the fact that he represented himself as this guy on the proverbial white charger who was going after the commies who were everywhere and then when he fell, and then people, well he was pulled down by the press, because he said I have this list, he was accustomed, he didn't know anything about the cameras, so he was accustomed to saying "On this list I have the names of 3 billion communists that have underground in offices, in your house, and everything, and then when the camera comes in and it was a blank piece of paper he was kaput. And I would say after that what the civil rights movement did to the sentimental idea of the Southern hospitality, our Southern way of life, and everybody was actually happy down here with segregation, you know, and then when people saw that you know there were red necks behind those armed, terrorist, red necks behind those white columns, that was a flip. I think that the war in Vietnam had a very big impact because the meaning of war changed again, you know because it wasn't the kind of war that people were used to, we didn't have a Hitler, and again when the Pentagon Papers came out that the people found out that there was this accumulated and willful set of lies that had been projected. Then of course there was Watergate. And I think too that as much as, as much as anyone, the the King, may have been the person who helped us get to the point where we could see, were able to accept the human foibles of the heroic figure, because I was extremely shocked when the revelations about his plagiarism and what they call, what they saw his picadillos, cause all that stuff came out and there was no outcry you know maybe we should rethink this holiday, or we should knock a peg, or you know if you guys want to, if you black people want to talk about we can't take the framers of the constitution seriously because they were a bunch of racists on plantations, you know sexists and slave holders how can we take this guy seriously.

So I think you're right, I think we're going toward a European, or at least a Southern European way of looking at things. Finally one of the things that really is important to address--some people who have chaotic lives, they are totally disciplined in their area of work. It was very profound what you said--watching these guys everyday, in these situations, in the huddle where the real plays are made and argued out, that there was no way that you could tell from these guys personal performances in the game in the absolute heat any relationship to what they did outside of that.

O'DONNELL:

And all I'm suggesting is that they are your weakest clue. I mean even if you want to go into the dramatic area everyone likes to use which is the President having his finger on the button and nuclear possibilities, or warfare in general. If we knew, then what we now know about Winston Churchill who was conducting a war everyday, having more to drink at breakfast than most people have in a week, I would say to you you would have gotten no clue as to his ability to conduct that war. If you were told FDR was very busy with a mistress while he was conducting this war, if you were told FDR died not with his wife, but with his mistress, would that be in anyway informative as to what a great President he was? I don't think so.

CROUCH:

There we go -- back to the greatest politician of the 19th Century probably, Lincoln. You know his famous quip about Grant. When it was said-- he's that Grant, he's a drunk. He said well, find out what kind of whiskey he drinks and I'll send cases of it tomorrow.


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

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS