Republicans indignant over the extramarital exposés of Henry Hyde, Dan Burton and Helen Chenoweth present us with a tableau as comical as any imagined by Molière. These outraged worthies never expected to become targets of the sexual inquisition they started, and they whine most piteously when the moralistic finger points at them. Bloodthirsty commanders of the culture war, they are eager for battle only if nobody fights back.
That is why Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay and Dick Armey -- the self-proclaimed defenders of family values -- want the FBI to investigate the sources of the Burton, Chenoweth and Hyde exposés. The GOP interpretation of the First Amendment protects fat-cat contributors and the likes of Matt Drudge, but excludes anyone who lifts the bedsheets off a "pro-family" phony.
The Republican leaders have denounced the embarrassing stories about their colleagues as "smears," although those stories are admittedly accurate. Almost in the same breath they attacked the White House as their supposed source, specifically naming presidential assistant Sidney Blumenthal -- even while acknowledging, as DeLay confessed, "I just don't have the evidence to prove it."
They have excoriated Bill Clinton for undermining American morality, and then broadcasted the most pornographic material ever to reach American households outside a plain brown envelope. Clinton's own dishonesty has provided intellectual cover for these charlatans, of course. But this violent bout of erotomania was provoked by the conservative politicians who now bemoan its consequences. It is the direct result of their blatant appeals to voyeurism, their insistence on strict standards for everyone but themselves and, most of all, their sadistic will to power.
A prominent specimen of right-wing hypocrisy is Rich Galen, director of Newt Gingrich's GOPAC operation. In a press release demanding that Clinton apologize to Hyde, Galen insinuated that the president had aided and abetted all three congressional adultery exposés. The White House, he added, "has revelled in its reputation for destroying the reputations of its enemies."
Actually, as Galen must be aware, it was a GOPAC fundraiser and Gingrich confidant named Peter W. Smith who opened the Pandora's box of political prurience. A wealthy Chicago investment banker, Smith has admitted spending at least $80,000 to track down scurrilous rumors about Clinton. In 1992 he hoped to turn the presidential election by finding Clinton's legendary (but nonexistent) black love child. The following year, Smith paid over $20,000 to the Arkansas state cops whose "Troopergate" sex tales about Clinton signaled the beginning of the present pathology. There are many arsonists who helped set fire to Washington's "scorched earth," but Smith lit the first match.
If they examine themselves honestly, the Republican leaders cannot escape their own moral incoherence. They know they are guilty of the same sins -- covert smears, illicit sex, habitual lying -- for which they are so driven to punish others. That must be why they exhibit such paranoia about White House operatives. After spending several years and millions of dollars demonizing the Clintons, they naturally fear retaliation in kind.
But the factual background of the Burton, Chenoweth and Hyde stories indicates that Republican anxiety about the White House is misplaced. All three stories were produced by legitimate journalistic endeavor. What lascivious politicians should fret about is a horde of investigative reporters, unleashed from traditional restraints in the wake of Kenneth Starr's inquisition.
The private affairs of Dan Burton were uncovered by a writer for Vanity Fair, a publication that has run dozens of negative articles about the Clintons and their friends, including a harsh profile some months back of the aforementioned Blumenthal. More recently the magazine executed a nasty hatchet job on private detective Terry Lenzner, who was wrongly charged by Republican spokesmen with snooping into the private life of Starr and his staff. (A few fevered theorists have declared that Blumenthal and Lenzner were in cahoots, a topic of some mirth between them when they met for the first time while waiting to appear before Starr's grand jury last spring.) Vanity Fair is a most unlikely outlet for Clintonian skullduggery.
Anyway, the first full account of Burton's double life appeared in the Indianapolis Star, the congressman's hometown newspaper and a periodical of impeccably Republican lineage. (It's owned by Dan Quayle's family.) The good conservatives at the Star have denied that they are instruments of the devilish Clinton White House, and there is good reason to believe them. Let's face it: An important official with a moralistic attitude and a son out of wedlock does make excellent copy.
Much the same can be said of the Idaho Statesman, the staidly conservative newspaper that unveiled Helen Chenoweth's saucy past. Weary of listening to her maunder on about the president's sins and her own Godliness, the Statesman editors finally published what everybody in Idaho politics and journalism has long known about this militia mascot. To her credit, Chenoweth didn't even attempt to blame the White House.
As for Henry Hyde, the Florida retiree who snitched on him has been trying to arouse interest in the Judiciary Committee chairman's "youthful indiscretion" since last winter. If and when the FBI examines Norman Sommer's telephone records, they will confirm that while seeking a forum for his grievance against Hyde, he tried to contact many reporters during the past several months, including me. Neither I nor about 50 others reached by Mr. Sommer took up his cause; and it took him quite a while to find the receptive editors at Salon.
That's partly because Mr. Sommer received no help from the White House; and neither did the reporters at the Star, the Statesman, Vanity Fair or Salon.
Nevertheless, some Republicans may believe those stories were planted by treacherous Democratic agents, simply because that is how their own side often does business. Among the best examples, ironically, is the case of Sidney Blumenthal. On the day he assumed his post at the White House last year, Blumenthal was smeared as a wife-beater in the Drudge Report, which cited Republican operatives as its only source. Forced to withdraw this falsehood immediately, Drudge said he had been used by Blumenthal's partisan enemies.
Now Blumenthal is being framed again, as Republican leaders and their media allies try to distract attention from the Burton, Chenoweth and Hyde scandals.
It's about time those three miscreants, along with Gingrich, Armey and DeLay, paid heed to the traditional values they talk about so much. Why don't they admit personal responsibility for their transgressions and quit blaming others?
Isn't that what conservatives are always telling the rest of us to do?