ONCE AGAIN infidelity has become an election-year issue. Another smart, young, charismatic Democratic candidate is accused of hiding extramarital affairs.
But if Gov. Bill Clinton's followers feel disillusioned, it is a misreading of the governor's behavior and of Gary Hart's legacy. Even worse, it suggests selective morality; after all, more than 50 percent of all husbands, and 30 to 40 percent of wives, commit adultery. It's likely that the infidelity rate of politicians is higher than this norm. The pressures of public lives can be inhuman: Politicians spend many nights on the road and receive countless overtures by political groupies sexually attracted by power.
But when journalists behave like inquisitors, the effect may be to restrict access to the White House to men (and women) who have been monogamous and can prove it. This would severely limit the field.
Besides, we know now that respected presidents have had affairs -- and in our memory they remain popular. How can we square this with putting a candidate on trial for sleeping with someone other than his wife?
Sex should not become a major issue in the 1992 campaign. Character should be. The nation rejected Gary Hart, not because of his extramarital liaison with Donna Rice but because he did not respect the electorate enough to tell it the truth. He told the press he was faithful and dared it to prove any infidelities. When the evidence turned up, the public decided he was not trustworthy enough to be president.
Unlike Mr. Hart, Mr. Clinton has not played a cat-and-mouse game. Nothing suggests he wasn't truthful when when he denied old allegations of affairs with five women in the 1980s. "It was thoroughly investigated," he said. "It's not true." All five concur.
Whether or not he has been unfaithful, he does not pretend that he has met a standard of "perfection." What counts more, he told the Los Angeles Times, is this: "Most people intuitively sense whether they're dealing with a person who has a center or a core. That's far more important to them than whether a person has made any mistakes in his life."
For Bill Clinton to name names and give dates -- if there were any to give -- would be an act of cowardice, not candor. To divulge more information would violate his privacy (which is his prerogative), his wife's privacy (which he has no right to do) and possibly the privacy of others (which would violate their rights).
When we ask candidates to meet a new ethical standard, we should do so across the board. But neither the other Democrats nor President Bush have been asked incessantly to divulge their sexual histories.
If the inquisitors persist with Mr. Clinton, then all the candidates must be asked the same questions. If they are not, we can rightly suspect that the crusade against the governor is not moral but political, perhaps because he is widely considered the Democratic front-runner.
If a new moral standard is to be applied, fairness would dictate scrutiny of the private life of Sen. Bob Kerrey, whose relationship with Debra Winger has been publicized, and of Jerry Brown, who has never married but has dated many women, including Linda Ronstadt.
But their private lives, like Mr. Clinton's, should not be dragged into the public square unless the details are relevant to their ability to lead -- especially if they tell the public something about the candidates' attitudes toward women.
Obviously the media have a right to pursue any information relevant to the character of those who seek the White House. But in so doing, they should distinguish between the public interest and prurient interest.
Mark Gerzon is author of the forthcoming "Coming Into Our Own," a book about how adults mature.