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Adulterers in Chief

The GOP's top three contenders for the 2008 race are the most maritally challenged crop of presidential hopefuls in American political history.
 
 
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Last month, The New York Times published a 2,000-word, front-page dissection of Bill and Hillary Clinton's marriage. It contained no real news, few named sources, and plenty of gossip masquerading as political coverage. Observing that the Clintons typically spend 14 days of each month together -- hardly unusual for a couple that includes a senator and a peripatetic former president -- the Times opted for the half-empty conclusion that the two lead "largely separate lives." The story also made an oblique reference to a Canadian politician named Belinda Stronach, the significance of which would likely be grasped only by insiders and people who read tabloids at supermarket check-outs. In a cover article last year, the Globe claimed that Stronach and Clinton were more than just good friends.

If the Times had evidence to support the innuendo, it decided not to print it. But despite the vaporous quality of the story's facts, David Broder's Washington Post column just 48 hours later indicated that a new conventional wisdom was forming, one which sought to undermine Hillary's presidential ambitions. After describing his boredom at a substantive speech the senator gave to reporters on energy policy, Broder concluded that the failure of reporters in the post-speech Q&A to grill Hillary about her personal relationship with her husband was the "elephant in the room."

Of course, there was once a time when reporters believed that the sexual peccadilloes of American leaders were a private matter, and the nation was probably better off for that belief. In the late 1990s, Broder himself argued several times that these kinds of stories don't do voters any favors. But the rules were shifting, thanks largely to the mainstream press and the GOP's relentless pursuit of Bill Clinton. Now the Times piece suggests that we're in for three long years in which reporters will judge Hillary Clinton's character by rumors about her husband. But it may be Republicans who have the most to lose.

Lurking just over the horizon are liabilities for three Republicans who have topped several national, independent polls for the GOP's favorite 2008 nominee: Sen. John McCain (affair, divorce), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (affair, divorce, affair, divorce), and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (divorce, affair, nasty divorce). Together, they form the most maritally challenged crop of presidential hopefuls in American political history.

Until relatively recently, a self-confessed adulterer had never sought the presidency. Certainly, other candidates have been dogged by sex scandals. In the 1828 presidential election, John Quincy Adams questioned whether Andrew Jackson's wife was legitimately divorced from her first husband before she married Old Hickory. Grover Cleveland, who was single, fathered a child out of wedlock, a fact that sparked national headlines during the 1884 election (though he managed to win anyway). There have been presidential candidates who had affairs that the press decided not to write about, like Wendell Wilkie, FDR, and John F. Kennedy. And there have been candidates whose infidelities have been uncovered during the course of a campaign: Gary Hart's indiscretions ultimately derailed his 1988 bid, and in 1992, during the course of his campaign, Bill Clinton was forced to make the euphemistic admission that he "caused pain" in his marriage.

But it wasn't until 2000 that McCain, possibly emboldened by Clinton's survival of his scandals, became the first confessed adulterer to have the nerve to run. Now, just a few years after infidelity was considered a dealbreaker for a presidential candidate, the party that presents itself as the arbiter of virtue may field an unprecedented two-timing trifecta.

McCain was still married and living with his wife in 1979 while, according to The New York Times ' Nicholas Kristof, "aggressively courting a 25-year-old woman who was as beautiful as she was rich." McCain divorced his wife, who had raised their three children while he was imprisoned in Vietnam, then launched his political career with his new wife's family money. In 2000, McCain managed to deflect media questioning about his first marriage with a deft admission of responsibility for its failure. It's possible that the age of the offense and McCain's charmed relationship with the press will pull him through again, but Giuliani and Gingrich may face a more difficult challenge. Both conducted well-documented affairs in the last decade -- while still in public office.

Giuliani informed his second wife, Donna Hanover, of his intention to seek a separation in a 2000 press conference. The announcement was precipitated by a tabloid frenzy after Giuliani marched with his then-mistress, Judith Nathan, in New York's St. Patrick's Day parade, an acknowledgement of infidelity so audacious that Daily News columnist Jim Dwyer compared it with "groping in the window at Macy's." In the acrid divorce proceedings that followed, Hanover accused Giuliani of serial adultery, alleging that Nathan was just the latest in a string of mistresses, following an affair the mayor had had with his former communications director.

But the most notorious of them all is undoubtedly Gingrich, who ran for Congress in 1978 on the slogan, "Let Our Family Represent Your Family." (He was reportedly cheating on his first wife at the time). In 1995, an alleged mistress from that period, Anne Manning, told Vanity Fair 's Gail Sheehy: "We had oral sex. He prefers that modus operandi because then he can say, 'I never slept with her.'" Gingrich obtained his first divorce in 1981, after forcing his wife, who had helped put him through graduate school, to haggle over the terms while in the hospital, as she recovered from uterine cancer surgery. In 1999, he was disgraced again, having been caught in an affair with a 33-year-old congressional aide while spearheading the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton.

Despite the scandalous details, whether the press will air them is still an open question. When it comes to personal morality, liberal commentators have long argued that the press has one standard for Democrats and another for Republicans (and another one entirely for the Clintons). It's possible that the mainstream media will fail to apply the same scrutiny to the known transgressions of Gingrich, Giuliani and McCain as the Times did to rumors about Hillary Clinton's husband. But for that to happen, the press will have to resist four powerful political dynamics that will almost certainly be pushing to get the story out.

Cheat and greet

The first dynamic is the competition among the contenders in a crowded GOP presidential primary. Right now, at least 10 high-profile Republicans are eyeing the race. If a candidate with an adulterous past pulls ahead, the stragglers may be sorely tempted to play the infidelity card -- if not openly, then through their surrogates. In 2000, George W. Bush's allies went well beyond raising McCain's affair -- they spread bogus rumors in advance of the South Carolina primary that the senator had fathered an illegitimate black child. This strategy helped to deliver Bush a key primary victory and, arguably, the nomination.

But if GOP operatives dangle the infidelity bait, and the press fails to bite, its importance to Christian conservatives won't be so easy to ignore. Since the press awoke to the phenomenon of evangelicals in 2000 and so-called "values voters" in 2004, reporters have become fond of gaming out every possible permutation of evangelicals' political concerns. Evangelicals' attitudes towards the marital problems of McCain, Giuliani and Gingrich might actually deserve such an inquiry. In 2000, for example, James Dobson issued a personal press release specifically to "clarify his lack of support for Senator McCain." "The Senator is being touted by the media as a man of principle, yet he was involved with other women while married to his first wife," Dobson said. He also cautioned that McCain's character was "reminiscent" of Bill Clinton's -- possibly the ultimate insult in conservative circles.

These remarks received little attention in 2000, possibly because reporters hadn't yet grasped the extent of Dobson's influence, but Carrie Gordon Earll, a spokesperson for Dobson's Focus on the Family, recently made it clear that the adultery issue hasn't lost any of its toxicity among evangelicals. "If you have a politician, an elected official, and they can't be trusted in their own marriage, how can I trust them with the budget? How can I trust them with national security?" she asked me. Although Earll was reluctant to discuss specific politicians, she noted that a candidate who "had an affair and then moved on and restored that marriage" might find forgiveness with Christian conservatives, but someone "who had an affair and then left his wife" would not.

If the press still doesn't focus on the GOP infidelity issue and one of the adulterers manages to win the nomination, a third dynamic will kick in: hopping-mad Democrats. After enduring the trauma of the Clinton years, and the indignity of John Kerry fending off baseless reports of a fling with a reporter in 2004, it's hard to imagine Democrats playing nice in 2008, especially in light of the high bar Republicans have set for themselves on "character" issues. What's more, there's not a single known adulterer among the 10 or so names most commonly mentioned as potential Democratic presidential contenders. What would any of them lose by unleashing their attack dogs on his or her opponent's checkered past (presuming they don't have a skeleton in their own closet)?

Finally, if the Democrats fail to plant this story in the press, one final force will be beating at their doors: liberal bloggers. Witness the indignation that swept the progressive blogosphere immediately after the Times piece ran on the Clintons. Hullabaloo's Digby fumed at the Times' "cheap, tabloid coverage of politics when the world is on fire." Matt Stoller at MyDD noted published rumors of a Jeb Bush affair with then-Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, adding, "Get ready for a slimefest." Bloggers are likely not only to relentlessly push the mainstream press to start covering Republican candidates' adultery, but may also ferret out new information about those past indiscretions that could prove awfully tempting to establishment reporters.

Of course, the right-wing blogosphere will be pushing back just as hard, aiming (along with GOP campaign operatives) to intimidate the mainstream press into not covering Republican infidelities. The party with years of experience exploiting "values" for electoral gain will no doubt dismiss the marital troubles of Gingrich, Giuliani and McCain as "old news" and the "politics of personal destruction," marking any reporter who brings up the subject guilty of "bias." Indeed, it's likely that establishment reporters will be grateful to have that argument as an excuse to steer clear of the subject altogether. But an excuse is all it will be. After all, in every presidential campaign, the press typically rehashes known facts about a candidate's past (think Bush's National Guard service, or Kerry's Vietnam record) on the theory that many voters aren't aware of them, and that new information relevant to voters often will emerge in the retelling.

It'd be dishonest to say that liberals won't take some satisfaction in seeing the Republicans undone by their own standards. But if the top three Democratic presidential hopefuls each had extra-marital affairs in their backgrounds, it stands to reason that Republicans would have something to say about it -- and if the past is any guide, those concerns would find their way into the papers. Of course, you could argue that we'd all benefit if reporters didn't write about any of this. But you could also argue that the support voters gave Bill Clinton suggests that they can handle the truth and are capable of distinguishing between public and private behavior. Perhaps the very fact that Gingrich, Giuliani and McCain are even considering presidential runs reflects a growing maturity in American politics.

What you can't argue, however, is that it's OK for the press to scrutinize one party's candidates and not the other's. If Hillary Clinton's marriage has been publicly dissected on the front page of the newspaper of record, why should the marital infidelities of GOP candidates be off limits? The answer is, they shouldn't be, and despite the mainstream press' deep reluctance, they probably won't be.

Steve Benen is a freelance writer and editor of The Carpetbagger Report .