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The journalistic ethicists should sleep better now


WASHINGTON -- Mari Maseng Will is my wife and a glutton for punishment. Please: proof of that gluttony is not that she married me, but the fact that for a year now, and for a third time, she has been involved in the communications operation of a Dole presidential campaign. Were I feeling as mordant as Senator Dole often does, I might say that being, as Mari was this time, communications director of the Dole campaign is akin to being pitching coach of the Minnesota Twins: The Twins do not have much pitching and Mr. Dole does not do much communicating.

Mari is now leaving that position, having been in it longer than she intended to be, and having responsibilities more crucial to the Republic. (More about David Maseng Will anon.) So this is a suitable moment for me to unburden myself about the sensitivities of some journalists as they pertain to relations between spouses.

Mari was Senator Dole's press secretary in his 1980 quest for the Republican nomination. She had the same job in 1987-88, until George Bush clinched the nomination. Then she became President Reagan's director of communications, before founding her own business.

Absent at the creation

She was not present when she acquired the title of communications director of Senator Dole's 1996 campaign. That happened five minutes before air time one Sunday morning last March in a cramped hallway outside the room where guests wait before appearing on "This Week with David Brinkley."

Mr. Dole was a guest and I had asked him to step outside so I could solve a problem, which was that ABC officials felt, reasonably, that I should inform viewers that I was married to someone who until then had been working for him without a title.

"What should she be called?" I asked. Said he, "I call her my messenger." Said I, waspishly (or perhaps Doleishly): "I thought the candidate was the messenger." Anyway, that Sunday, and on several subsequent Sundays when it seemed pertinent, I said I was, so to speak, in bed with Senator Dole's communications director.

This fact, which has been acknowledged in this column, and reported in newspapers and newsmagazines and on television, has nevertheless troubled the sleep of some journalistic ethicists, such as the woman from Time magazine who called the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates this column, to lecture it about my "conflict of interest."

How she knew my "interest" is unclear. Presumably she knew intuitively that, because Mari worked for Senator Dole, I was uncritically ardent for his success. Mr. Dole, having read what I have written about him, could cheerfully (well, with what passes for cheerfulness in him) have disabused her and other fretful ethicists of that worry.

By the way, my only discernible influence on Senator Dole has been to express in a column a sentiment he then took to heart, and to repeating. It was: "Dole must make a virtue of necessity, saying: Look, if people want as president a version of a talk-show host, they already have one."

I suggested that the Writers Group tell the woman from Time that there were three possible solutions: Mari could quit her career, I could quit mine, or we could get divorced. All three seemed somewhat disproportionate, but perhaps Time should choose.

For future reference, and for journalistic ethicists still unhinged by the danger posed to propriety by a journalist being married to a political person, remember: Anyone whose spouse works for a candidate has an interest in that candidate losing as swiftly as possible.

Senator Dole won the nomination about as swiftly as possible, which is almost as good. Mari originally wanted just to help xTC orchestrate his announcement tour last year, but then lingered and wrote, among other things, his Hollywood speech, and then decided that after two losses with him it might be nice to win the nomination.

He has won, so now, although Mari will continue to consult with her friend the candidate (unlike many operatives in contemporary campaigns, she really knows and likes her candidate), she returns to her private-sector business, and to being communications director for David, age 3.

One recent noontime when Mari was crashing on some campaign project I forget what: probably putting together some remarks for the candidate to mangle or ignore I was deputed to pick up David from preschool. There he and I had a conversation normal in substance but notable in style.

Most 3-year-olds, this experienced father of four thinks, would have combined their favorite word (the first-person singular pronoun, "I") with their most frequently used verb ("want") to express their fondest desire with stark, Hemingwayesque directness: "I want to go to McDonalds." Instead, David, whose oblique style is more Henry James than Hemingway, said: "Were you thinking we should go to McDonalds?"

Syntactically sophisticated and slightly sly, David does not need a communications director. However, he will find other employments for his mother.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/17/96

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