Why we ran the Henry Hyde story

Published September 16, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Two weeks ago, Salon editor David Talbot received a phone call from a 72-year-old retiree in Aventura, Fla., named Norm Sommer. Sommer asserted that Henry Hyde, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, had between 1965 and 1969 carried on an extramarital affair with a married woman named Cherie Snodgrass. At the time of the affair Hyde was an Illinois state representative, married and the father of four sons. Sommer was told of the affair seven years ago by Cherie Snodgrass' ex-husband, Fred Snodgrass. During a tennis game, Snodgrass, a friend and tennis partner, had blurted out the story of the affair and how it had ruined his family. Sommer said the story came to his mind again in January when the Monica Lewinsky scandal erupted and it was speculated that the affair might eventually end up before Hyde's committee.

We checked out Sommer's allegations. We contacted three other sources -- one of Snodgrass' grown daughters, an old family friend and Fred Snodgrass himself. They all confirmed the story, as did Snodgrass' ex-wife, through her daughter. Snodgrass also provided us with photographs of his ex-wife and Hyde, including the one on Salon's front page. (On Wednesday, Hyde confirmed to Salon that he had been involved with Cherie Snodgrass and that the relationship ended after Hyde's wife found out about it.)

At this point, we were faced with the most difficult editorial decision we have confronted in our three-year history. Should we run the story or not? After hours of often-heated discussion, we decided to publish it. We feel that we owe you, our readers, an explanation of why we took this extraordinary step.

First, however, some facts. Salon is an independent publication. We have no relationship of any kind with any political party, and no editorial party line. Although we have been an outspoken critic of Kenneth Starr's investigation, we are not a "pro-Clinton" publication. We have attacked Clinton from the left, right and center. Indeed, one of our editors has called in these pages for his resignation.

Experience, however, has taught us that the favorite ploy of those who want to discredit our reporting is to accuse us of being a "pawn of the White House." Recent stories in which our Washington correspondent, Jonathan Broder, quoted White House sources threatening to employ a so-called sexual "scorched earth" policy have only increased the misconception that there is some sinister, or, to use the term of art, "inappropriate" relationship between the White House and Salon. Therefore, it is important for us to state: The White House had nothing whatsoever to do with any aspect of this story. We did not receive it from anyone in the White House or in Clinton's political or legal camps, nor did we communicate with them about it.

Norm Sommer, the man who did lead us to the story, categorically denied to us that he had any connection to the Clinton administration. "Not only am I not connected to them, I couldn't get anyone there interested," he said, adding that he also called the Democratic National Committee but that he "never heard back from anyone." Sommer said he called the White House and the DNC to get advice on how to get his story out: "I tried to get the story out for seven and a half months. I've spent hundreds of hours and called dozens of people in the media, without success." Among the various publications he contacted in a futile effort to air the story were the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and Miami Herald. He finally turned to Salon, he said, when he heard the Web magazine mentioned on a TV talk show.

Sommer's motivation, he readily admits, was political. A retired sales manager for Gillette and Jergens, he is a lifelong Democrat who served as a Henry Wallace delegate at the 1948 presidential convention. Sommer says he was outraged by what he called the "bloodless coup" carried out by the Republicans over Whitewater and the Lewinsky scandal.

That was Sommer's motivation. What was ours?

In a different and better world, we would not have released this story. Throughout the tragic farce of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, we have strongly argued that the private lives of all Americans, whether they are public figures or not, should remain sacrosanct. We have not defended President Clinton's infidelities, but we have argued that they are of no relevance to the public -- and should certainly never have been seized upon by a zealous independent counsel unable to find any misdeeds beyond sexual indiscretions to justify his four-year, $40 million-plus effort.

But Clinton's enemies have changed the rules. In the brave new world that has been created by the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the private lives of public figures are no longer off-limits. The president is now to be judged not by how he does his job, but by his private sexual behavior. As Rep. Tom DeLay, one of Capitol Hill's more vigilant moral centurions, said, "I'm scared to death of such notions that it doesn't matter what a person does in his private life. The character is the person ... I'm very concerned we have some [people] in the United States that really believe that character doesn't matter."

But in that case, what holds true for President Clinton must hold equally true of the august figure who leads the committee sitting in judgment upon him -- Rep. Henry Hyde. If the public has a right to know, in excruciating detail, about Clinton's sexual life, then surely it has an equal right to know about the private life of the man who called the family "the surest basis of civil order, the strongest foundation for free enterprise, the safest home of freedom" -- and who on Monday indicated that he believes impeachment hearings are warranted.

Hailed as fair-minded and statesmanlike by the media and his political supporters, Hyde has nonetheless pursued an aggressively partisan strategy this week, pushing to broadcast the videotape of Clinton's grand jury testimony over strenuous Democratic objections and arguing for expanded investigative powers for his committee.

It will be argued that Hyde's 30-year-old affair cannot be compared to Clinton's, because Hyde's sexual intrigue was not carried out in Washington and because he did not lie under oath. Clinton is not being investigated because he had an affair, those who argue this insist, but because he lied about it. This is, we submit, either absurdly naive or disingenuous: Lying and having an affair can't be separated. To have an affair is by definition to lie about it -- an affair is a lie. Consequently, the notion that Clinton's lies about the nature of his relationship with Lewinsky could constitute an impeachable offense is blatant politics, hiding under a legal fig leaf.

Aren't we fighting fire with fire, descending to the gutter tactics of those we deplore? Frankly, yes. But ugly times call for ugly tactics. When a pack of sanctimonious thugs beats you and your country upside the head with a tire-iron, you can withdraw to the sideline and meditate, or you can grab it out of their hands and fight back.

Ken Starr opened up his Republican supporters to sexual scrutiny the moment he delivered a 445-page report to Congress that was nothing more than a sensationalistic accounting of the president's affair designed to drive him from the White House. Starr's investigation is the true scandal, a political lynching party that, finding nothing of legal import in Whitewater, quick-changed into the most expensive and tawdry sex probe in American history, sullying the presidency and the nation's world standing in the process.

We hope by publishing today's article to bring this entire sordid conflict to a head and expose its utter absurdity. Does the fact that Henry Hyde engaged in an adulterous affair, and tried to keep it hidden from his family and constituents, mean he is not fit to hold public office? Absolutely not. And the same is true of President Clinton. It's time to put an end to the confusion of the personal and the political, this moralistic furor that has wreaked utter havoc with our system of governance.

By Salon Staff

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