Private lives and public people

MARCI McDONALD September 21 1987

Private lives and public people

MARCI McDONALD September 21 1987

Private lives and public people


A saxophone wails a sultry background refrain as the camera pans along one leg, sheathed in washed-out blue jeans. The lens travels up a shapely torso to reveal a mane of blond hair and a face more familiar from news columns than from advertisements. With a knowing smile, Donna Rice —the 29-year-old Miami model whose relationship with former Colorado senator Gary Hart led to his withdrawal from the Democratic presidential race last May—gazes into the camera. Later, in the 15second televised commercial for a brand of jeans coyly named No Excuses, she says breathily: “I make no excuses. I only wear them.” Only the night before, Hart had broken a four-month silence in an attempt to revive his own shattered political career with a performanee that might also have been labelled “no excuses.”

Appearing nervous and occasionally wringing his hands on a special hourlong edition of ABC TV’S Nightline, Hart offered a public apology for his “very, very bad mistake” in associating with Rice. Declining to answer specific questions about their relationship, Hart did, however, volunteer a response to one query that he had refused to answer in the final hours of his campaign: whether he had ever committed adultery. Said Hart to Nightline host Ted Koppel: “If the question is: in 29 years of my marriage, including two public separations, have I been absolutely and totally faithful to my wife, I regret to say the answer is no.”

Hart’s confession—including an emotional appeal for forgiveness to his son and daughter— was a reversal of his earlier attempts to

blame his troubles on the media. He said that he took “total responsibility” for his actions. But as he embarked on a national lecture tour last week—beginning in Philadelphia with a speech on U.S.-Soviet relations—he did try to shift the spotlight from his own behavior to a larger issue. Claiming that he did not plan to get back into the presidential race, Hart admitted that

he still wanted to be “part of the debate.” And among the issues that he said he intended to debate was whether the relentless media scrutiny of politicians’ private lives was driving good candidates out of public life. Added Hart: “We simply cannot so invade political candidates’ privacy that they choose not to run.”

Hart’s concern seemed valid as the 1988 presidential race was only five months away from the first primary in New Hampshire. Since Hart’s departure, no clear candidate has emerged in either the Democratic or Republican parties, and the focus has increasingly been on personality and character. After the Hart scandal be~ came public, The New ^ York Times sent a con&lt troversial letter to pro| spective presidential z candidates, requesting o financial and medical u records. The paper also conducted a telephone

survey asking: “How should a hypothetical presidential candidate who has not committed adultery answer the question, ‘Have you ever committed adultery?’ How should a hypothetical presidential candidate who has committed adultery answer the same question?” Said John Buckley, press secretary for New York Republican Rep. Jack Kemp: “We told them it was beneath the dignity of a presidential candidate to answer.”

At least one leading Democrat has already claimed that his decision not to run was partly a result of wanting to protect his family from the painful probes of the media: New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.

Hart lunched last week with Cuomo, whose son,

Andrew, a lawyer who ran his father’s 1986 gubernatorial campaign, has been accused in the media of profiting professionally— although not illegally — from the relationship. But the governor acknowledged that “I suspect people won’t stop being unfair to Andrew if I remain as governor.”

Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy’s early decision not to enter the fray also resulted from his concern that the media would again focus on his private conduct. In the past there were frequent reports of his high living, which partly accounted for the breakup of his marriage. And he was the subject of intense media scrutiny following the 1969 Chappaquiddick car accident that resulted in the death of former campaign aide Mary Jo Kopechne.

Other candidates have apparently felt it essential to air potentially damaging private revelations early, before they became public in the media. Last year, long before the Hart scandal, political adviser Roger Stone persuaded Kemp, a former football star from Buffalo, to confront rumors circulating in Washington about an alleged past homosexual connection. Said Stone at the time: “I’d rather deal with it now than after he wins the New Hampshire primary.” And in July, after the Hart affair, Kitty, the vivacious wife of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, publicly acknowledged that, until five years ago, she had suffered from a 26-year addiction to prescription diet pills.

Another reminder of the toll that media scrutiny can take on a politician’s family life appeared last week, the day after Hart’s apology. Former Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro was bracing for the trial this week of her husband John Zaccaro. He is accused of trying to extort a $l-million payment from a cable television franchise—a charge that arose after investigations into his and his wife’s personal finances during the last presidential campaign three years ago. In fact, Ferraro supported Hart’s claim that the media was discouraging good candidates. She said that if she

had known in advance of the anguish that press scrutiny would bring to her family, “I think I would have said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ ”

But the strains on candidates’ families come not only from finding their personal lives under a public magnifying glass. U.S. presidential campaigns also take their toll by their sheer length and the gruelling demands of the American primary process. According to Gary Orren, an associate professor at Harvard’s

Kennedy School of Government, the 1988 campaign will be longer than any other in history precisely because it is so wide open: for the first time since 1952 neither party boasts a clear leader.

Compounding that pressure is the fact that delegate selection has been moved ahead on the calendar. Within a month of the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 8 and the New Hampshire primary a week later—the first presidential tests—at least 20 states will hold simultaneous primaries on March 8, dubbed Super Tuesday. By then 40 per cent of the delegates to next summer’s nominating conventions will be decided. The need for costly television campaigns to blanket so many states in such a short time has made the size of candidates’ war chests more important than ever. Said Lee Atwater, campaign manager for vicepresident and presidential candidate George Bush, who leads the pack with $10 million: “This year, more than ever before, your fund-raising operation ... is as vital a part of your campaign strategy as anything else.”

Still, the focus on politicians’ sexual behavior remains the most controversial. Liberal columnist Nicholas Von Hoffman, for one, said that he is concerned that the emphasis on moral rectitude could paradoxically lead to corruption. Said Von Hoffman: “People being people, they are going to end up in the wrong beds. And if you’re going to watch people in the wrong beds, you open them up to tremendous amounts of political blackmail.” But on its editorial page last week The New York Times declared: “Gary Hart keeps missing the point .... The important point in this case ... is neither privacy nor promiscuity but recklessness.”

Indeed, Hart’s attempt at a political comeback—perhaps as an eventual Secretary of State—had mixed results. Many observers expressed skepticism at his claim that photos of Rice sitting on his knee occurred because she “dropped into my lap ... I was embarrassed; I chose not to drop her off.” Said Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin: “The explanation was a little hollow.” And Stephen Hess of Washington’s Brookings Institute said that, while the thorny question of where to draw the line on privacy might remain a live issue throughout the 1988 presidential campaign, Hart could damage his party by trying to capitalize on it. “Other serious candidates have a right to be heard now, and their problem is that they’re not terribly well-known. Gary Hart is adding static to the airwaves.”