Sex, Lies and Politicians


Henry Cisneros, ex-mayor of San Antonio, the Hispanic superstar who crashed and burned, is coming to Baltimore for a commencement speech today. But I don't need to go. I see him in my bathroom every morning.

An explanation may be in order. I was a reporter in San Antonio from 1983 to 1989. At a time when the whole city seemed to be buzzing about his rumored infidelities, the mayor appeared in one of Esquire's "Women We Love" issues, extolling the virtues of his wife. It was hard to decide if his audacity was appalling or admirable.

I framed that photograph and hung it over my toilet. I wanted to be reminded, every day, that men lie, sometimes brazenly. (OK, people lie.) It seemed an important lesson, personally as well as professionally.

Mr. Cisneros might be quick to point out here that the Esquire statement was not, technically, a lie. Politicians live and die by such technicalities. ("I didn't inhale.") Cheating on one's wife does not necessarily dim one's admiration for her, he might say. He is still married to her after all, despite a brief flurry of divorce papers earlier this year.

In fact, Mr. Cisneros' infidelity, revealed in a newspaper column, did not end his marriage or his brilliant career. Yet few people I meet seem to understand that he walked away from the voters; the voters never abandoned him. He is often crammed, somewhat carelessly, into a Gary Hart mold. But he doesn't fit.

A brief recap: In the summer of 1988, then-Mayor Cisneros

decided not to seek a fifth term, although his re-election seemed guaranteed. He said he wanted to spend more time with his family, especially an infant son who had been born with severe health problems.

The cynical view held that he was stepping down in hopes of resolving his marital problems as well, but this could never be proven. By retreating to the private sector, Mr. Cisneros reclaimed his private life. Or so it would seem.

A newspaper columnist for the Express-News decided to go with the story, anyway. Because Mr. Cisneros was considered a national player -- he had been on the short list of vice presidential picks in 1984, a high-profile member of Henry Kissinger's Central American panel -- the revelation was, briefly, in every major newspaper and news weekly. Henry Cisneros had self-destructed.

Actually, he was reborn within a week. As a campaign surrogate for Michael Dukakis, he drew huge, adoring crowds that fall. Polls showed he was still one of the most popular politicians in the state. Later, he used his immense popularity to push through a domed stadium in San Antonio, a city with only the dimmest prospects for a professional football or baseball team.

So sex and lies weren't enough to end a career. Nor should it have been, I realize now. Whether the man is Henry Cisneros, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton or President George Bush, the standard of absolute honesty in a politician is a useless yardstick. I wouldn't want to date any of these guys, but I still might vote for them. Their records are clear. I don't care if their personal lives are murky.

We look for honesty in politicians because they make promises, and we want to know if they will keep those promises. But as long as we don't reward those who are candid, how can we expect total honesty?

Yet, I keep Mr. Cisneros on my bathroom wall. Now that I've decided I can tolerate some dishonesty in politicians, I am working on another dilemma. Which is scarier: the politician who lies knowingly, or the one who believes his own falsehoods? It's a question that's especially relevant to this year's presidential campaign, I think.

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