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Published: Sunday, 7/15/2001

Scandal as old as politics

BY ANN McFEATTERS
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON - Sex, lies, and politicians. Year after year. Decade after decade. And for 200 years, the scenario has rarely changed:

Rumors of improper liaisons sprout throughout the nation's capital. Somebody goes public with them. There are expressions of outrage by the politician and public denials. Friends, aides, and even spouses deny all. Details leak out. Bad conduct is proven. The media says it does not want to cover such sordidness - but hastens to add that, sadly, it must. And the guilty politician practices the politics of confession - begging for forgiveness, often blaming alcohol, finding religion, or writing a soul-baring book.

While there is a great deal of hand-wringing and soul-searching about whether voters should know or care about the sexual misbehavior of their elected top power brokers and those paid to advise elected officials, in the end, the politicians always seem to get punished.

It began at the dawn of the nation with the founding fathers when such men as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were stalked by a journalist intent on printing details of their sexual malfeasance.

Jefferson was publicly accused of seducing two married women, including the wife of a good friend, badly damaging his reputation. Hamilton admitted publicly to an extramarital affair, an “indelicate amour,” to escape what he thought of as the more serious charge of enriching himself and friends with inside Treasury Department information. But word of his sexual peccadillo with a blackmailer spread and Hamilton was forced to write a tell-all pamphlet. It became a best-seller and derailed his chance of being president.

The pattern continues today with Rep. Gary Condit (D., Calif.), scurrying from apartment to his congressional office trying to elude a phalanx of reporters and TV crews eager for a new sighting. Mr. Condit, 53 and married, denied and then admitted to police that he had an affair with missing 24-year-old intern Chandra Levy, who has not been seen by friends or family since April 30.

There have been so many sex scandals in Washington that there are at least half a dozen tours for tourists of the “hot'' spots. Maps and tours have to be regularly updated to add new sites.

The latest buildings to be staked out by the media - and the curious - are the building near Dupont Circle where Miss Levy lived before disappearing and the apartment building where Mr. Condit lives while in Washington. His family lives in California. Under cover of darkness, police searched his apartment this week for three hours after midnight with laser beams and ultraviolet lights looking for evidence that might indicate a struggle. Meanwhile, police insist Mr. Condit is not a suspect in Miss Levy's disappearance.

But the media glare on Mr. Condit has become so intense that Mr. Condit has replaced former President Clinton as the prime target of the late-night TV talk-show hosts.

David Letterman: “It's been so hot on the East Coast, Gary Condit is happy to be under that cloud of suspicion.''

Jay Leno: “The No. 1 movie is still The Fast and the Furious. If you haven't seen it, it's about Congressman Gary Condit cleaning out his apartment before the cops show up.''

And Mr. Leno summing up as he talked about Mr. Condit's public disgust with former President Clinton's behavior with Monica Lewinsky expressed in a letter to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who divorced his second wife to marry an aide: “Only in Washington would you have a man alleged to have had an affair with an intern condemn a man who had an affair with an intern by writing to a man who had an affair with his staffer.''

As Mr. Condit watches his political career fall apart, the public remembers the last time the nation was obsessed with a politician involved with an intern.

Tourmobiles drive slowly by the south lawn of the White House where visitors strain to see the West Wing where the Oval Office juts out. They are thinking that behind those windows Monica Lewinsky brought pizza to Mr. Clinton, and he leaned back in his chair, looking out those same windows, as he chatted with her late at night, months before he would be impeached.

At a nearby hotel, The Jefferson, former Clinton adviser Dick Morris stayed regularly with a prostitute who listened in while he talked to President Clinton on the phone.

When Mr. Morris' extramarital affair became known at the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1996, his lucrative political consulting business fell apart, and Mr. Morris took to writing columns berating politicians and writing a tell-all book, Behind the Oval Office, for which he was paid $2.5 million.

It was not at a hotel but in a townhouse and on a boat that was the undoing of Gary Hart, a senator from Colorado who was running for president. He challenged the media to follow him to find out if rumors of his philandering were true. Mr. Hart's presidential bid was over when reporters saw Donna Rice go into the senator's townhouse one night and not come out until the next night and when photos were published of her sitting on the senator's lap aboard a boat called Monkey Business.

A few blocks away tourists still argue about exactly where and how on the Capitol steps a former congressman from South Carolina named John Jenrette, Jr. - caught in an FBI sting, convicted of bribery and sentenced to jail for two years - had sex with his then-wife, Rita, who later undressed, twice, for Playboy magazine.

She wrote about once finding her husband on Capitol Hill “drunk, undressed and lying on the floor in the arms of a woman who I knew was old enough to be his mother.''

Paula Parkinson, a lobbyist on Capitol Hill who openly traded on her looks and posed for Playboy, was the downfall of Rep. Tom Evans, a Republican from Delaware. A Justice Department investigation cleared him of trading votes for sex, but he lost his next bid in 1982 for re-election.

There are many regions of Capitol Hill that involve sex besides the private hideaway offices the public does not see. Elizabeth Ray is still famous as the secretary in the Longworth House Office Building who could not type but was paid to be the girlfriend of her boss, Rep. Wayne Hays of Ohio. Ms. Ray lost her job, but so did he.

Another congressman who lost his job because of sex was Robert Bauman, a conservative Republican from Maryland who was passionate in denouncing liberals until he was arrested by the FBI and charged with soliciting sex from a 16-year-old boy.

Mr. Bauman lost his family, his reputation, his conservative friends, his livelihood and, for awhile, his self respect when he wrote a book, The Gentleman From Maryland: The Conscience of a Gay Conservative. He said he did not want to write about his life, but he did it for the money, saying, “People just want to know who you're sleeping with.''

Illicit sex on Capitol Hill was often treated for years as the stuff of almost slapstick humor.

In 1974 when police stopped a speeding car with no lights, Fanne Foxe, who performed a nightly strip tease in a bar called the Silver Slipper, jumped out in panic and into the Tidal Basin and had to be rescued. Inside the car was the drunken and long-married Congressman Wilbur Mills of Arkansas. Pictures taken by a TV crew and Mr. Mills' awkward denials and evolving explanations made him a laughing stock.

But the pictures of the tempestuous Ms. Foxe and the powerful Mr. Mills, who headed the House Ways and Means Committee, were the turning point that made sex and politics a near-permanent staple of front-page news in America. And that made the consequences much more serious for everyone, the politicians with their libidos and the women who found that notoriety does not equate with success or happiness: the Fannes, the Donnas, the Elizabeths, the Ritas, and the Chandras.



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