The president and the first mistress?

Will the marriages -- and affairs, and divorces -- of the GOP frontrunners get the same scrutiny as the Clintons'?

Published June 28, 2006 4:45PM (EDT)

Using "vaporous" facts and unattributed sources in a front-page story on the former first couple, the New York Times has already stirred up a tempest in the teapot of the Clintons' marriage. And according to Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly (via AlterNet), "the Times piece suggests that we're in for three long years in which reporters will judge Hillary Clinton's character by rumors about her husband."

Which, Benen suggests, should make a few of the presumed GOP frontrunners for the presidential nomination very, very nervous. Namely: "Sen. John McCain (affair, divorce), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (affair, divorce, affair, divorce), and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (divorce, affair, nasty divorce)," writes Benen. "Together, they form the most maritally challenged crop of presidential hopefuls in American political history."

The seedy details (rehashed in the piece) are indeed tabloid-tastic, though I now have a new image of Newt Gingrich that I wish I could lobotomize. Yet even as I read, I thought, "And what makes you think the press will do anything but continue to uphold its double standards?" And Benen, clever man, read my mind. "Despite the scandalous details, whether the press will air them is still an open question," he writes. "When it comes to personal morality, liberal commentators have long argued that the press has one standard for Democrats and another for Republicans (and another one entirely for the Clintons)." (Plus, there's this: "The party with years of experience exploiting 'values' for electoral gain will no doubt dismiss the marital troubles of Gingrich, Giuliani and McCain as 'old news' and the 'politics of personal destruction,' marking any reporter who brings up the subject guilty of 'bias,'" and, I might add, willfully ignoring all obvious ironies in the process.)

But then Benen went on to cite several compelling reasons why things might be different this time around. One of them is that "the adultery issue hasn't lost any of its toxicity among evangelicals," Benen writes; chances are they'll make sure it remains an issue. Back in 2000, before the press paid as much attention to him as they do now, James Dobson of Focus on the Family apparently issued a personal press release specifically to "clarify his lack of support" for Sen. McCain: "The Senator is being touted by the media as a man of principle, yet he was involved with other women while married to his first wife," Dobson said, warning that McCain's character was "reminiscent" of Bill Clinton's. (Emphasis added.) Ooh, snap! Benen also suggests that "hopping-mad Democrats" and the liberal blogosphere, having seen Bill Clinton's pillorying and John Kerry's Swift-boating, simply aren't going to take it anymore.

I know what you're thinking, other than "the Dems should have stopped 'taking it' 10 years ago." It's probably something like: "None of this junk should be an issue to begin with." Well, Benen's on that. "Of course, you could argue that we'd all benefit if reporters didn't write about any of this ... What you can't argue, however, is that it's OK for the press to scrutinize one party's candidates and not the other's," he writes. "If Hillary Clinton's marriage has been publicly dissected on the front page of the newspaper of record, why should the marital infidelities of GOP candidates be off limits? The answer is, they shouldn't be, and despite the mainstream press' deep reluctance, they probably won't be." It's a thoughtful piece; make of it what you will. And just as an afterthought: If you really want a candidate's past indiscretions to be a campaign issue, just make that candidate a woman.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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