Political firestorm erupts against Salon

Firestorm engulfs Hyde affair story.

Published September 18, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Angry denunciations from Congress and the media rang out across the capital Thursday after publication of a report that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde had been involved in an extramarital affair 30 years ago.

Republicans and Democrats rose to Hyde's defense and blamed the White House for planting the report in an effort to deflect attention from the impeachment investigation arising from President Clinton's affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

"These intimidation efforts amount to a direct assault on the United States House of Representatives," House Majority Whip Tom DeLay told reporters as he released a letter asking the FBI to investigate allegations that the White House is orchestrating a campaign to intimidate congressmen.

Late Thursday the FBI said it would look into the matter and promised "appropriate steps will be taken to determine if a violation of federal law has occurred."

Meanwhile, Salon came under a withering assault from journalists who argued that the story was not worthy of publication.

"In Washington establishment journalism, at least, there was widespread revulsion at the Salon story within an hour of its appearance," wrote National Journal media critic William Powers in an article for publication Friday. Another journalist called Salon's publication of the Hyde story "despicable" and "slimy."

Salon's story, written by editor David Talbot, described Hyde's five-year affair with a woman in Illinois while they were both married. The article included quotes from the woman's then-husband and a statement from Hyde, 74, acknowledging the affair and attributing it to "my youthful indiscretions."

"The only purpose for this being dredged up now is an obvious attempt to intimidate me and it won't work," said Hyde, one of the more respected members of Congress, who is essentially in charge of the impending impeachment hearings against Clinton. The day Salon published its story, Hyde was holding meetings to decide whether to release Clinton's videotaped grand jury testimony under questioning from Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr.

"Isn't the timing well-planned," DeLay said Thursday.

In an editorial accompanying the article, Salon's editors argued that Starr's investigation of Clinton's personal life made dalliances of congressmen such as Hyde fair game. Republicans and Democrats took to the House floor shortly after the House came into session to denounce the story and its alleged White House connection.

"Let's tell it like it is," railed Rep. James Traficant, a Democrat from Ohio. "The same White House that called Monica Lewinsky a liar is on the attack. Who else is on the list? Are you on the list? Am I on the list?"

Threatening a backlash against the White House, Traficant said: "The spin to win could provoke the mood to remove."

The White House claimed it had no role in prompting the Hyde story, and press secretary Mike McCurry, deputy chief of staff John Podesta and chief of staff Erskine Bowles issued a number of denials, saying the White House "would not tolerate conduct like that."

The report on Hyde's affair was the third exposi of a Republican in the past few weeks. Indiana Republican Dan Burton, chairman of a committee investigating campaign fund-raising tactics by the White House, held a press conference admitting a dalliance, and Idaho arch conservative Helen Chenoweth followed shortly after.

Moving to stem the disclosures, the chairmen of Democratic and Republican fund-raising committees threatened to withhold funds from any congressman who trafficked in allegations of private sexual conduct. Rep. Martin Frost, a Texas Democrat who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said he was "appalled" by the Hyde story.

Many mainstream journalists were appalled that Salon published the story. After Talbot defended his story on ABC's "Good Morning America," George Stephanopolous said, "He's saying that he can publish something that happened 30 years ago because it's all of a sudden relevant. I don't know that Henry Hyde went to a grand jury and was accused of not telling the truth. This did not happen in office. This is the kind of bottom feeding that's unbelievable."

National Journal's Powers wrote that Salon "has carried a great many buckets of water for the White House in the past seven months," and added: "The rules -- the unspoken code by which political journalists used to decide which secrets in a politician's private life are germane to his public life -- died this week."

By Harry Jaffe

Harry Jaffe is a leading journalist covering Washington, DC—its politics, its crime, its heroes and villains. Beyond Washington, Jaffe’s work has been published in Yahoo News, Men’s Health,Harper’s, Esquire, and newspapers from the San Francisco Examiner to the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s appeared in documentary films, and on television and radio across the country and throughout Europe.

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