WASHINGTON -- Just when you thought it was safe to go back into your tabloid newspaper again, the jaws of junk journalism once more come snapping down on the 1992 presidential campaign.
Last winter it was the gossip tabloid the Star that got the ball rolling on allegations of marital infidelity against Gov. Bill Clinton, on the basis of the testimony of a Little Rock sometime nightclub singer and some taped telephone conversations that may or may not have been edited. The ball was kept rolling by ABC News, which high-mindedly declined to report the charges on its evening news the day it broke but then devoted its late-night "Nightline" show to a debate on the propriety of airing the story.
This time it is the New York Post, a bare cut above the gossip tabloid genre, by picking up an obscure reference and footnote in a new book that was going nowhere to allege similar marital infidelity by George Bush when he was vice president. And this time it was a CNN reporter who assured worldwide coverage of the story by asking President Bush directly about it in a televised news conference -- with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin standing by, no less.
Bush understandably erupted when the CNN reporter asked him about the Post story saying an ambassador had told others he had arranged "a sexual tryst" for Bush in Geneva. "I'm not going to take any sleazy questions like that from CNN," he shot back, adding he was "outraged" and would not respond "other than to say it's a lie."
The story peddled in the book, and blown up by the Post, is essentially the same one that has been kicking around the Washington whisper mill for years -- that Bush had an affair with a woman who worked for him and now is at the State Department. The new wrinkle is an allegation -- supposedly made by a former U.S. ambassador who most inconveniently is now dead -- that on a trip to Geneva in 1984 they "stayed in adjoining bedrooms," and the naming of the woman by a specified source.
The Post blared the allegation all over its front page and inside, with a cover headline "The Bush Affair: Book reveals U.S. envoy set up Swiss hideaway in 84 for Vice Prez & his secretary." The book, however, "revealed" nothing but hearsay of the sort that has been printed before, most notably during the 1988 campaign by another tabloid, the L.A. Weekly. Then, when an aide to Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis publicly called on Bush to "fess up," Dukakis promptly canned her.
The Bush-Quayle campaign's new pit bull, deputy campaign manager Mary Matalin, wasted no time pinning the blame on the Democrats. She called them "a bunch of hypocrites" for complaining about Republican negative campaign tactics while, she charged, peddling this old story to the news media. When rumors about the health of Bush and other key administration figures surfaced a few weeks ago, she blamed that on the Democrats too, but offered no proof other than to say reporters had told her unnamed Democrats were the peddlers.
It would not be totally astonishing if some Democrats did try to get this old story with a new twist into print and onto the airwaves. Both parties have played that game for years, and it is an obvious tactic of the Clinton campaign to remind voters of the very negative campaign run by Bush in 1988.
But it's questionable whether Clinton's cause is well served by a renewed focus on questions of marital infidelity no matter who is being accused. And Bush's problem remains the dismal state of the economy under his tenure and his inability to articulate where he wants to take the country in a second term.
The real losers are the American news media, whose credibility with the public already is no higher than a grasshopper's knee. There is nothing wrong with printing or airing a story about marital infidelity on the part of a public official who endlessly preaches "family values" -- as long as the story can be proved to be true. This one does not come close to meeting this test. But once it surfaces in a presidential news conference, it can't be ignored as if it never happened, either, and that's the dilemma the rest of the press faces again in this episode.