The candidate's three worst moments


BOZEMAN, Mont. -- Bill Yellowtail ambles into the Leaf an Bean coffee shop on Main Street looking relaxed and downright amiable for someone who has been through a politician's worst nightmare. By now the Democratic candidate for Montana's one congressional seat can recite the lead of every story about his campaign: "Bill Yellowtail, comma, criminal, comma, wife-beater and deadbeat dad . . . "

The burly, energetic 48-year-old son of an Irish mother and Crow father entered this race as a progressive with a reputation for women's issues and for building coalitions. He was a charismatic three-term state senator and head of the regional Environmental Protection Agency.

But those who run for office now must expect to see their 10 worst moments on videotape. Mr. Yellowtail saw his worst three moments in newsprint.

Moment 1: When he was caught stealing camera equipment as a young student at Dartmouth College, where he felt like a novelty item, an American Indian away from home and over his head.

Moment 2: When he struck his first wife -- once, but hard enough to warrant medical care.

Moment 3: When he fell behind on child-support payments because he was dead broke and trying to save his family ranch.

This morning, Mr. Yellowtail shakes his shock of white hair, wondering how he could have believed that these "skeletons in my closet" would remain private. "I had this innocent Montana cultural attitude that these were matters of our family and we resolved them all over the years to our mutual satisfaction. I thought it was water under the bridge." Instead, his candidacy almost drowned in these revelations.

But something remarkable happened. In the homestretch, Mr. Yellowtail has a 12-point lead in the polls. Running against

Republican Rick Hill -- a divorced father who has said, "I stood up for my kids; he walked away from his" -- Mr. Yellowtail is way ahead in the support of Montana women.

This is a striking story in the annals of character politics. Ever since Gary Hart tripped over the A-word, Americans have been wrestling over the personal lives of public figures. Women in particular believe that a politician's private behavior shouldn't be left out of the public accounting.

An ambiguous answer

But over time, character assessment seems to have gotten harder, not easier. As Mr. Yellowtail himself asks: "Is a blemish or a set of blemishes on a person's past necessarily a reason to exclude him from policy-making?" The answers seems to be increasingly ambiguous: It depends.

This candidate survived his three worst moments, in part because his whole family -- including his first wife and 26-year-old daughter -- came forward in his defense. "Actually bounded forward," is his appreciative phrase.

He survived, too, because he talked and talked and talked. He didn't excuse what had happened 15, 20 and 25 years ago, but he explained what he had done and how he had made amends.

He survived finally because as James Carville recently told a roomful of would-be campaign managers, "The danger of character attacks is everyone is human." Just this month, Mr. Hill's ex-wife publicly claimed that Mr. Hill had had an affair with a cocktail waitress 20 years ago.

How do you compare "human" flaws? In the presidential campaign, for example, how do you compare a husband who "caused pain" in his marriage and repaired it, with another who walked out of his marriage with barely a word.

How do you rank the importance of a private life with public positions. In this case, "Bill Yellowtail, comma, deadbeat dad," is a pro-choice, pro-Brady bill progressive. Rick Hill is a pro-life, anti-Brady bill conservative.

And finally, how do you calculate someone's "three worst moments" with the rest of their life?

"In Montana," says Bozeman state Sen. Dorothy Eck, "we tend to know our politicians in a more personal way, so these are not just attacks on some TV figure but on someone we have met. We don't want to see people torn apart personally." If that is true, this huge and diverse state may be ahead of the 'character' curve.

"As Americans," Mr. Yellowtail says this crisp morning, "we have to reconcile our morbid curiosity about people and our quickness to judge with this ethic that we teach and preach that every person should seek to be better and if we stumble, we should pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and recover."

Bill Yellowtail stumbled. But if the polls are right, the next headlines will read, "Bill Yellowtail, comma, Congressman."

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/25/96

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