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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The Letter Formerly Known As Scarlet

By Margaret Carlson

Time cover

(TIME, September 28) -- Like most people, I'm sorry that a man as decent as house Judiciary chairman Henry Hyde came to be outed for infidelity. I got the same letter about Hyde's affair from Florida retiree Norman Sommer that 57 other reporters received. I tossed it into the large pile of mail I will never answer, not because it was written in crayon (actually, it was neatly typed, lucid and provided names) but because one person's bad behavior doesn't mitigate another's. Nor does Hyde's affair take away from his qualifications to chair possible impeachment proceedings. If you were to set up a "he who is without sin" standard for casting stones, few stones would ever be cast in Washington.

Republicans cleverly distracted attention from the Salon magazine article about Hyde by charging that it had been planted by the White House, as if stories magically appear on desktops courtesy of West Wing scribes. With poor Hyde "in play," as we pundits say to justify piling on, I called Sommer to find out if he thought the world was a better place for having been informed about Hyde. He was too busy to talk; NBC was filming, CNN was in the on-deck circle, and print reporters were stacked up like jets at LaGuardia.

It's that pileup that shows what is really wrong with exposing Hyde's past, aside from hurting him and leaving even innocent bystanders--like the press!--at risk of a sexual inquisition. Holding up adultery to the light of the 24-hour news cycle has bleached the scarlet A. When used to bludgeon a political foe, adultery is not a human tragedy but a political one. "Will it hurt his poll numbers?" becomes the question, not how broken and scarred a spouse and children may be. With the press reveling in scandal (although we insist that we are not), even good people make bad excuses, searching for an asterisk to put beside their adultery ("It's old," "I was young," "It's over," "My wife forgave me"). The result is to "define adultery down" (with credit to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who argued six years ago that we were "defining deviancy down" by failing to be outraged by the social decay all around us).

We expect excuses from Clinton. His supporters argue that the voters elected an admitted adulterer, so they should have factored in the possibility that he would cheat again. The "What did you expect?" excuse rests alongside "Other Presidents have done it," "Sophisticated world leaders are not alarmed," "It wasn't really sex," and "Whatever it was, it was private."

Surely Hyde, a straight-shooting Catholic who speaks eloquently and frequently on the sanctity of marriage, does not believe in an "I was experimenting with adultery" type of excuse, when adultery is a mortal sin by his standards, nor in "youthful indiscretions" beyond the "statute of limitations." But Hyde shrugged off accountability. I'm an expert on age 41, when his five-year affair began, and it's hardly young. Maturity should have kicked in by that time. Yes, it was a long time ago and Hyde's marriage survived, but the pain he caused in the Snodgrass marriage and to the three children was lasting, with wounds deep and fresh enough that the husband and a daughter agonized over it publicly. It wasn't Adultery Lite to them, and Hyde would have reinforced family values by affirming that it was a terrible thing he did and he is deeply sorry and ashamed.

Two other politicians spun their adultery downward. Representative Helen Chenoweth, who's been using Clinton's sins in campaign ads and benefited from her opponent's sexual failings in the past, explained that she wasn't married when she had her six-year affair and didn't lie about it. However, her paramour was married, and an Idaho paper released an interview in which she had lied about it. She claims that God has forgiven her. (How does she know?) Now she may be content to discuss issues. Then there's moralizing Representative Dan Burton, who was very self-forgiving when it was disclosed that he has a child born out of wedlock during an affair he had with a state employee when he was an Indiana legislator. He pleaded all the usual excuses and added that he was coming forward on his own (although not until he knew the news was going to be published) and that unlike the person he called a "scumbag," he had never lied (although he didn't own up on the birth certificate). He never said adultery is wrong.

In the new movie One True Thing, Meryl Streep tries to describe the trade-offs of marriage to her daughter, who is crushed to learn that the father she idolizes, a charismatic English professor, has done more than mentor his teaching assistants. Streep, who has conducted a lovely domestic symphony while he gads about, explains that the things you think you will never put up with, you end up putting up with because in the morning the children are all scrubbed, the coffee is perking, and everything you love is there in the kitchen and you can't risk losing it over an affair. What a message that sends. I can see why she wouldn't impeach her husband, but why not censure him?

The next politician who gets caught--and in sexual Armageddon there will be another--should not treat adultery as excusable or commonplace or less than a terrible offense. Prohibition and the 55-m.p.h. speed limit may have been ended with the general outcry "Everybody does it." But no one is going to repeal "Thou shalt not commit adultery." It glues the world together. It should be honored, especially by those forced to own up to its breach.


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Cover Date: September 28, 1998

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