Secret lives of the Republicans, Part One

How Dan Burton outed himself in a preemptive strike against an upcoming Vanity Fair expose.

Published September 11, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

(Editor's Note: First Dan Burton, now Helen Chenoweth. A confessional zeal seems to have seized Capitol Hill these days, and is threatening to grow into a flood now that the Starr Report has landed. Maybe soon it will even become fashionable to out oneself. Part One in a series of continuing reports.)

The words spoken on Aug. 31 sounded eerily familiar: an admission of regret, an attempt to deflect the moral issue by assurances that no law was broken, acknowledgment of pain caused to family, a dash of self-flagellation -- but no specifics, no formal apology and, finally, a burst of defiance. But unlike the prevaricator in chief's half-assed attempt at an apology and explanation for what we've known about all along, conservative Rep. Dan Burton, R.-Ind., wasn't responding to any public allegations.

Unnerved by the thoroughness with which independent journalist Russ Baker and others have been probing his apparently active life, Burton outed himself. Believing Baker's piece was going to be in the upcoming Vanity Fair, Burton decided to cryptically pseudo-confess a slew of past sins with a kind of preemptive strike. "If something comes out that you read about, that you think Danny shouldn't have done, I will own up to it. I won't lie about it. I will tell the truth," the congressman said, leaving one to wonder if he'd let us know what "it" was, should no story ever appear.

By week's end, Burton -- by now fearing that revelations were imminent in the daily Indianapolis Star -- further allowed that his definition of family values included an old adulterous affair followed by financial support of (but no personal contact with) an illegitimate son.

But sprinkled throughout Burton's hedges and acknowledgments were accusations -- charges that journalists' strings are being pulled by "friends of the president" who have been "spreading rumors" about his personal life. While it is entirely possible that the Clinton White House has been up to no good in this case, those who have participated in or covered Indiana politics over the past 25 years found Burton's conspiracy theory laughable for one simple reason: Tales of Burton infidelities, true or not, have abounded in Indiana political and journalistic circles for years.

In fact, had it not been for a certain comment Burton himself made back in March, odds are that word of the tales would never have appeared in print at all. But after years of tolerating Burton's roguish hypocrisy, an alternative newsweekly editor in Indianapolis named Harrison Ullmann finally decided earlier this year that Burton had crossed a line, and he decided to publish a column that broke the silence, thereby providing the impetus that has subsequently propelled Baker and the Indianapolis Star into action.

"I can assure you I have had no contact with the White House or any friends of Clinton's," Ullmann, editor of the newsweekly NUVO, says. "In fact, if Burton's district wasn't on the fringe of our circulation area, I wouldn't have written anything. But with the one comment, he made it relevant."

The comment? When Burton called President Clinton a "scumbag."

A 30-year veteran of Indianapolis, Ullmann, as a general rule, subscribes to the old-school rules when it comes to political reportage: Private lives are off-limits. "Going back to when I started as a reporter in Cleveland, there was just this kind of feeling that most of that stuff really doesn't tell you anything relevant about a guy's capability as a public official," he says. "In the old days here, we'd see guys gambling at the Columbia Club, even though it was illegal. Or we'd see these guys drunk at parties. Did we report that? No."

After a few years in the Statehouse, recalls Ullmann, Burton was well-known in the bird-dogging department. Not that he was different from many of his brethren: "In terms of sex, the first place the '60s got to in Indianapolis was the Statehouse -- this was a time when hookers would come in and leave cards on legislators' desks," Ullmann says. "Getting a piece was rampant in the General Assembly then. And within that context, Burton had a major reputation."

Indeed, says Ullmann, Burton's reputation was so secure that the newspaperman once colluded with several lobbyists and legislators to play a joke on the legislator. "There was this night we knew it would be impossible for him to get away, and we told him we were putting together this party and some really great women would be there. He was going nuts, trying to get out of whatever he was locked into."

Though Ullmann says he's been bothered more and more in recent years at the hypocrisy of Burton's posture as a "family values" candidate, he still did not wish to delve into Burton's sex life. After all, Burton's public life provided more than enough fodder for tough stories -- on strange fund-raising relationships with Sikhs, on bizarre legislative crusades, on unique ideas like the use of nuclear weapons to win the Gulf War.

But however probing or critical the coverage, Burton, unlike most politicians, has never had to worry about antagonizing or being antagonized by Indiana media: His district is one of the most conservatively Republican in the country, and the largest newspaper, the Star, is a paper that runs a Bible verse on the front page every day and is owned by Dan Quayle's family.

In March 1998, at a meeting with the Star's editorial board, Burton -- himself under federal investigation for possible campaign improprieties -- uttered his infamous riposte about Clinton the fund-raiser: "If I could prove 10 percent of what I believe happened, he'd be gone. This guy's a scumbag. That's why I'm after him."

At this point, says Ullmann, the fact that Burton was referring to campaign finance misdeeds and not sex became moot. As he considered the years of unpursued leads, Ullmann says he thought that in areas of genuine concern to his constituents -- Burton's campaign slogan includes "character does matter" -- Burton too might be characterized as a scumbag.

So Ullmann cut loose. "Back when he had a seat in the General Assembly and back during his early terms in Congress, Dan Burton had a reputation for sex with convenient women that was at least as awful and awesome as the Clinton reputation," Ullmann wrote. "When Hoosier politicians and pundits gathered, they would tell each other stories about Burton scoring with interns and pages, scoring with staffers in his offices and staffers in his campaign, scoring with Carmel housewives and some fine and famous Christian women elsewhere in his district. The stories were never told elsewhere to anyone else, either by politicians or pundits," Ullmann continued. "But neither were any of the stories seriously investigated ... and maybe it was just as well until now. Even so, there are times when private lives are relevant to public life."

Ullmann went on to pose, open-letter style, a list of pointed questions -- questions that NUVO reporter Brian Howey had planned to ask Burton in a scheduled interview for a hard news story. Burton had backed out of the interview, and Howey and co-author Mark Schoeff Jr., a former Republican Senate staffer, published an article that raised a new on-record character allegation from John Domi, a former gambling lobbyist. "Every time he'd go on one of my junkets [to Las Vegas], he'd have a different gal," Domi told NUVO. "I watch him in Congress and his committee and all I have to say is, let he without sin cast the first stone. Danny forgot himself. And if I saw him, I'd tell that to his face."

It was this column, not anything involving the Clinton White House, that brought Burton's past into the open. Like Clinton, perhaps, you could say that Burton has no one to blame but himself.

By Jason Vest

Jason Vest is a Washington-based journalist and national correspondent for

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