Monday, February 25, 2008

February 25, 2008

     No, I wouldn't have run the story and I'm disappointed that the New York Times did, on a couple of grounds.
     First, I thought it was bad journalism.  If you're going to run a story about presidential sex, you ought to have it firmly nailed down.  I mean, there was Gary Hart on the good ship "Monkey Business" and there was what's her name, Donna Rice, in his lap, and, hey, not much doubt about what was going on.  And even more flamboyant, Bill Clinton.  Paula Jones announcing her affair with him at a conservative political meeting;  Clinton himself  having, if I remember right, oral sex with Monica Lewinsky while on the phone with a Congressman.  And the semen stain on the dress.  And the jokes about presidential knee-pads.
     And he lied about it under oath:  "I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."  Hunh?  Oral doesn't count. The House impeached him, more for the lying than anything else, and the Senate acquitted him.  It would have been impossible not to report most of that.
     The Times' story lacked any facts.  It talked about McCain aides who suspected an affair, aides who  worried  McCain might be having an affair.  As The New Republic wrote, "the piece delicately steps around purported romance and instead reports on the debate within the McCain campaign about the alleged affair."  One canceled hotel bill, one receipt for a rented beach cottage and the whole picture might have looked different.  But the Times just didn't have the proof it needed to run the piece, it seems to me.
     That's one level of debate.  Another is whether politicians' sex lives, adulterous or not, are any of our business.  I remember the late Hugh Sidey, who covered the Kennedy White house for Time Magazine, saying that all the regular White House reporters knew about the girlfriends, but that somehow there were always other things--the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis-- that seemed more important to write about.  That, of course, was almost half a century ago and times do change.
     Bill Clinton, again, may have proved that presidential sex sometimes must be reported.  Maybe that's his legacy--you can't ignore an impeachment.   But this story?  Even if it were true--and again, I don't think the Times made that case--even if it were true, so what?  It was eight or nine years ago.  Did it make McCain a less effective senator? The story says he wrote letters for some of her clients, but senators do that stuff all the time as a favor to a campaign contributor, an old friend, whomever.  The story offers no proof that he changed a vote, for instance, to make this lobbyist happy.
   So, on both grounds, I think the Times--and I'm normally a fan-- I think the Times messed up.

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