Joe Conason

Why was it OK to write about George H.W. Bush's alleged affairs in 1992, while bashing Drudge's scandal-mongering today? Because the right still uses sex rumors to smear Democrats while protecting its own adulterers.

Published February 17, 2004 7:53PM (EST)

With the so-called Kerry intern story dead, now that the woman with whom the Massachusetts senator supposedly had an affair has convincingly denied it, all that remains of this evanescent "scandal" is the old debate over when, if ever, the press should delve into the private lives of political candidates. In an election year, that is always a pertinent and complicated question. But a few eager promoters of the Kerry story, no doubt disappointed by now, are deflecting their frustration onto those who wondered publicly whether Kerry's personal affairs merit such scrutiny.

On Sunday, as his scoop began to disintegrate, Matt Drudge sniped at his critics. He noted archly that while certain "main press players" had criticized him for "revealing details of a behind-the-scenes campaign drama surrounding candidate Kerry and the nature of his relationship with a mystery woman," those same journalists had once "peppered" the first President Bush with "questions surrounding an infidelity rumor." Drudge included me in that list -- along with Helen Thomas, Jonathan Alter and several television correspondents. And at first glance, he had a point.

In my column last week examining the Kerry flurry, I urged reporters to consider whether "the rumor of a private peccadillo deserves their attention and resources in the 2004 campaign." Yet 12 years ago, during the 1992 presidential campaign, I wrote a cover story for Spy magazine about rumors and allegations swirling around the first President Bush's personal affairs.

Drudge perceived a contradiction -- and now an Internet blogger and a newspaper gossip have arraigned me for hypocrisy.

Flattering as it is to be insulted by the likes of Mickey Kaus, I believe readers deserve a better account of that episode than he offered. He actually didn't bother to read the Spy article, which I would have faxed to him if he had only asked. (Neither did Drudge, I suspect.) Instead, adhering to his usual rigorous approach, Kaus relied on a brief Nexis clip from USA Today that described my article somewhat inaccurately. Although his continuing obsession with the sexual prowess and physical appearance of politicians he dislikes is worthy of clinical analysis, I'm not going there. (Following this recent column by the incomparable Daily Howler, further comment on Mickey and his style may be forever superfluous anyway.)

Daily News gossip Lloyd Grove, who publicizes the Kaus kvetch today, at least asked me for the Spy article (although it is hard to say how closely he read it). In an e-mail to me, Grove says I ought to have disclosed the old Bush story when I wrote about Drudge and Kerry, and explained the difference. Fair enough, although it didnt occur to me at the time. I think its quite obvious why 2004 is very different from 1992. So does Boston Phoenix media critic Dan Kennedy, who also obtained and read a copy of the Spy article.

For anyone unfamiliar with the late and lamented Spy, it was a glossy, sassy, frequently daring monthly that stalked the unoccupied journalistic territory between satire and investigation. While Spy's usual targets tended to be obnoxious public figures such as Donald Trump and Larry Tisch, it also ran longer, deeply reported stories on nasty K Street lobbyists, crooked officeholders and other political topics. In 1992, its editors asked me to look into the whispers of adultery that had haunted George Herbert Walker Bush since his 1980 presidential campaign -- and why the national press corps had never published a story on the topic.

I spent months chasing down rumors about Bush, most of which I debunked. As I noted in the introduction to the Spy article, most of what the politicians, consultants, businessmen and other sources told me about his affairs amounted to "no more than unconfirmable gossip." I also found one story that my editors Kurt Andersen and Susan Morrison, their counsel and I believed likely to be true.

But so what? Why did we think the Bush story was worth our "attention and resources" in 1992?

The answer, of course, was the enduring double standard that pillories Democratic peccadilloes while ignoring or excusing the same misbehavior among Republicans: "What American journalists seem uncomfortable investigating is screwing around -- by a Republican president or candidate, at least -- especially if the investigation might require more than a supercilious glance at a 'supermarket tabloid.' This year, while a parachute press corps has scoured Little Rock for any hint of Democratic scandal, the issue that remains too hot to handle is whether Poppy has been faithful to Bar ... If stories about womanizing could ruin Gary Hart and cripple Clinton," I asked, "then why isn't anybody looking into the stories about George Bush?"

Moreover, the Republicans were clearly preparing to exploit an unfairly tilted playing field: "In public, the president warns his own campaign against delving into 'the sleaze.' In private, his political aides snicker about the so-called independent committees that will do the dirty work, just as they did in 1988 with the Willie Horton ad. In fact, the same operatives behind the notorious Horton spot have already set up a new, pseudo-autonomous Presidential Victory Committee, aiming to spend $10 million for media attacks on Clinton's character."

The other germane aspect of the Bush story was how widely the belief that the president had strayed was held by the reporters who covered him. R.W. Apple, then the chief Washington reporter of the New York Times, openly discussed the issue. He even uttered the name of Jennifer Fitzgerald, a former Bush aide and alleged paramour, at an academic seminar broadcast on C-SPAN. But as numerous top Washington journalists told me, almost nobody had made a serious attempt to learn the truth.

So I examined the rumors and allegations -- and knocked down most of them. Yes, I quoted many anonymous sources on the subject. But I also quoted Washington journalists Jack Germond, Fred Barnes and the great Walter Pincus -- along with the president's son George W. -- denying any substance to such allegations.

In a Chicago Tribune feature about Spy, James Warren, then the daily's media columnist (and now its deputy managing editor), described my Bush story as "an unusually low-key, even caution-ridden effort that dispenses with the magazine's characteristically biting rhetoric and even verges on the mildly pedantic ... But the story is intriguing as it makes a case that the press is tougher on Democrats when it comes to alleged 'character' issues than on a sitting Republican president."

While focusing on the myriad Bush rumors and how they had been handled by the press, I came across a case that was considerably stronger than most of the gossipy tales floating around him. Out of respect for the woman's privacy, the Spy editors and I agreed to refer to her only as "Ms. X." In 1980, after working for a news agency covering the Republican presidential primaries, Ms. X told several friends in New York about her romantic involvement with Bush. The following year, after Bush was elected vice president, she moved to Washington. There she confided in another close friend.

Without knowing or speaking with each other, her Washington and New York friends separately confirmed to me what Ms. X had told them. They unanimously vouched for her credibility. I also managed to speak with Ms. X, who acknowledged knowing Bush but called the affair allegation "absolutely and 100 percent a lie." She also threatened to sue Spy for libel. But when reminded that a story must be untrue to be libelous, she replied, "Maybe libel wouldn't be how we'll pursue ... What you're doing is destroying my privacy."

If I have any qualms about the Bush story, they're the same ones that I felt at the time. The headline -- "He cheats on his wife" -- oversold what we were publishing, as I told Andersen and Morrison. They disagreed. And the Spy style tended to preface allegations with the word "alleged" less diligently than other publications.

Unfortunately, the July/August 1992 edition of Spy isn't available on the Internet so that readers can reach their own judgments. Rereading it now, I think the reporting holds up well. And the conclusion is certainly still pertinent. Indeed, considering the lopsided media coverage of Clinton's sins and those of his adversaries on Capitol Hill, most notably Newt Gingrich, it's almost prophetic:

"Does it matter whether [Bush] had an affair with [his former aide] Jennifer Fitzgerald, or with any of the several other women whose names have been linked to his? ... Perhaps not. If George Bush had entered the White House a virgin and remained pure for the past four years and the next four, he would still suffer by comparison to several presidents who were known philanderers: Jefferson, FDR, even LBJ and Eisenhower ... Certainly it's past time for American politics to grow up and reach a point where stories about our leaders' sex lives are treated as the titillating, perhaps largely irrelevant trivia they usually are. But that maturity will never be achieved as long as the public is permitted to see the messy human truth only about Democrats, while Republicans are displayed inside a bubble of happy, wholesome illusion."

By Salon Staff

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