WASHINGTON -- If you want to measure the decay of the political system, the Bob Livingston episode is as good a criterion as any. It speaks volumes about the politicians, the press and the public.
At the most fundamental level, there is no reason most of us need to know about the sexual history of the next speaker of the House if we assume, as is apparently the case here, that it didn't intrude on his public performance.
But Mr. Livingston felt obliged to confess to his fellow Republicans that he had "on occasion strayed from my marriage," though not with anyone on his staff -- in contrast to President Clinton.
He also reassured his colleagues that, again in contrast to Mr. Clinton, he had "never been asked to testify under oath" about the indiscretions. The point was clear: I was guilty of adultery but not of perjury, which is the issue here.
The logical response to all that is: So what? Who cares?
But the fact is that these days there is a substantial bloc of socially conservative voters, many of them fundamentalist Christians, who believe it is legitimate to measure political questions in terms of morality. That is what is involved in the
opposition to abortion rights and to homosexual rights -- a finding that both abortion and homosexuality represent violations morality and that those who support either are beyond the pale.
These voters are, moreover, a key constituency for the Republican Party these days. So it makes sense that Mr. Livingston wouldn't want them to find out about his "indiscretions" in a way that would make it appear he had something sinister to hide.
Why this personal history has to become public at all is quite a different question. And the answer these days is that there are no longer any limits on what will make it into the press. The time has long since passed when the rule is that politicians' personal lives were newsworthy only to the degree they impinged on their public performance.
Thus, in this case, Mr. Livingston could look ahead to his personal history finally making it into the public eye. It might be disclosed first in some tabloid or obscure Web site. But the experience of the past few years is that even the most scurrilous stories eventually make their way into the mainstream press.
Just in the last year we have discovered that Henry Hyde, the chairman the House Judiciary Committee, had an extramarital affair 30 years ago. So did Rep. Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, an adamant conservative, a few years ago. Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, chairman of another House committee that investigated White House fundraising, fathered a child out of wedlock.
All of these "stories" came from the press, but the Republicans are convinced that the White House has been the prime agent in circulating damaging information about its most conservative critics. There never has been any proof of White House involvement uncovered, but the president's staff has been behind some trashing of Clinton critics, so the suspicions are understandable.
In the Livingston case, the notion of Clinton's agents planting such a story never made a lot of sense. Anyone who has been around Washington could have foreseen that the response from the Republicans in the House would be even more emotional rallying-around the speaker. And the level of indignation among the GOP was so high that it would have been laughable to expect any votes on impeachment to change.
None of that means the White House wasn't peddling the story. The Clinton folks have a history of political clumsiness. But it does argue that this was not some calculated plan to undermine the speaker.
zTC It is also true, of course, that logic doesn't always guide the tactics and strategies of politicians. Sometimes they just get angry and want to strike back at their adversaries. And they know they can find a willing accomplice in the media, which no longer have any widely applied standards.
The long wrangle over impeachment has been an ugly spectacle for weeks. There is no reason to expect any civility between the two parties in Congress or between Congress and the White House. But we can hope that we don't have to learn all about the sex life of everyone involved.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.
Pub Date: 12/21/98