Backstage

Private lives, public people

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 6 1999
Backstage

Private lives, public people

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 6 1999

Private lives, public people

Backstage

Anthony Wilson-Smith

As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, famously: “There are no second acts in American lives.” That was true in the pre-television era—but these days, there are reruns, even in real life. Just ask George W. Bush, the Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate. A non-drinker for the past 12 years, he keeps being asked to relive his previous life in public. At first, he refused to give specifics, saying only “when I was young and foolish, I was young and foolish.” Recently, under fresh media questioning and rumours spread by Democrats, he added he has not used drugs in 25 years. That hasn’t been enough: now, there are suggestions that if Bush doesn’t come clean with the “American people”—meaning the Washington press corps—the controversy might derail his campaign.

It’s fun for us in the media business when we play judge and juror, even though our sanctimony is shot through with hypocrisy. Put it this way: if a journalist had smoked a joint with Bush in 1969 and managed to take a picture of his wrecked-friend-and-future-presidential-candidate, publishing the photo today might ruin the future of one, while it would burnish the career of the other. The fact would be that both broke the law, but only Bush would likely suffer.

The debate over how to deal with the private lives of public people is about as old as journalism. In Canada, the unspoken rule has been that politicians’ private lives are their own business unless it affects their performance. When Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman’s wife, Marilyn, was arrested for shoplifting (though not charged) earlier this year, the local media knew, but did not act on the story. It came out when the stressed-out mayor publicly threatened a reporter who he believed was about to reveal the incident—and thus brought it to general attention. But the followup coverage and feedback reflected sympathy for the Lastmans, and chagrin that the incident had been made public.

In Ottawa these days, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single salacious detail in the lives of most of the country’s biggest political names. Jean Chrétiens drink of choice is beer, while Paul Martin prefers the occasional scotch and water. Preston Manning sticks to soft drinks, and Joe Clark’s worst habit used to be extremely well-cooked hamburgers drenched in ketchup. And it’s a good thing Allan Rock jogs daily, because, until his family moved to Ottawa from Toronto several years ago, he was working on the worst addiction to junk of the burger-fries-cola variety.

All of the above is true—and even if there were worse scandals to recite, our libel laws would make it difficult to tell you. There’s a key difference between our laws and those of the

United States: south of the border, you can say anything you want about a public official, so long as you can prove an absence of malice. Here, you have to prove what you’re saying—and that’s a big hurdle.

Actually, Canadian politicians aren’t necessarily more saintly than their American counterparts (well, leaving aside Bill Clinton). And there’s little evidence on either side of the border that voters’ choices are adversely influenced by personal misdeeds. Sir John A. Macdonald was sometimes drunk in public. Ralph Klein’s earthiness and thirsty habits haven’t stopped him from being arguably Canada’s most effective premier. People in New Brunswick shook their head, laughed or ignored rumours about the antics of Richard Hatfield, the confirmed bachelor who was premier for 17 years. And Quebec’s chattering classes were abuzz with the womanizing exploits of René Lévesque in his early years as premier.

Still, the media uproar over Bush’s distant past sets the bar at new levels. It’s extraordinary and ingenuous to suggest the actions of someone many years ago are relevant today—especially if, like Bush, they’ve given up previous vices. Some of the greatest evangelists in history were hell-raisers in their youth, such as the legendary ballplayer-preacher Billy Sunday, and no one told them their misdeeds disqualified them from spiritual leadership. And it’s silly to measure people’s past actions by present standards of behaviour. To carry that practice to absurd extremes, for example, the great civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. would be judged harshly today because he called his people “Negroes” instead of “African-Americans”, and wore shirt, tie and conservative suits instead ofTommy Hilfiger or Fubu outfits.

Perhaps the real issue isn’t the public’s right to know— especially since polls show Americans don’t care what Bush did in the past. What’s actually at stake is journalism’s sense of entitlement. Everyone wants to be in the loop. Cover politics in Washington, Ottawa or elsewhere, and you inevitably go to dinners with influential people where someone drinks too much, everyone talks too much, and things are said that might be embarrassing if they showed up in print.

The social contract between reporters and politicians includes swapping information in such circumstances. It allows journalists to collect anecdotes and opinions so as to better explain their subjects to readers and viewers. The process of deciding what to report, and what to leave out, is tough, subjective and imperfect. That’s unavoidable. But more than anything, reporters like to know stuff—even if they don’t tell others. Bush chose to keep the Washington press corps out of the loop. Now—make no mistake—he is being punished.