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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The deplorable down and dirty

By Calvin Trillin

TIME magazine

(TIME, October 19) -- Those of us who bear the responsibility of keeping the public informed so that representative democracy may flourish in America are waiting quietly for the real dirty stuff to start. When the war of sex accusations breaks out on the campaign trail, we intend to deplore it, at length and in detail.

The moment is approaching. Already, Governor David Beasley of South Carolina, faced with allegations that he had an affair with his former press secretary, has felt the need to deny all at a press conference that featured not only the Governor and his wife but also the press secretary and her husband--the sort of gathering that could become the 1998 campaign's version of double dating.

By now, some political campaign consultants who like to stay one jump ahead in strategic thinking must have prepared memos for candidates who could find themselves in the position of having to confess past dalliances. Consultants are paid, after all, to research such questions as whether some suddenly revealed naughtiness is more likely to be neutralized by referring to it as an "inappropriate relationship" or a "youthful indiscretion."

Some of this advice should be straightforward enough. I would think candidates have been told not to use inappropriate relationship as a verb, particularly in its short form, as in "I think last night after the rally he IR'd that zaftig secretary from Scheduling." I can imagine consultants advising candidates that as a general rule, it's unwise to use the phrase youthful indiscretion if the dalliance took place at a time when either participant qualified for one of those leisure-housing developments like Sun City, Ariz., that are restricted to senior citizens.

On the other hand, some sexual activity is more difficult to categorize. Having been brought up in the Midwest, I can't help thinking that if we travel very far down this road, we are sooner or later going to come to accusations about teenage flings with farm animals. In a tightly contested congressional race taking place in a rural district, the challenger just might dredge up one of the incumbent's high school classmates who, still embittered by some perceived slight in 11th grade, is willing to go to the local newspaper with an unflattering portrait of what the now august Congressman was like at 17: "Why, we used to say he would have shown up at the junior prom with a sheep if he'd been able to find one that could do the twist."

Depending on the circumstances, a consultant might suggest that the Congressman try to undermine the credentials of the snitch ("The man can't tell a sheep from a goat!") or simply stonewall on the theory that even in the Kenneth Starr era, there is enough prosecutorial discretion left to make the subpoenaing of a sheep highly unlikely.

But what's the fallback position? Youthful indiscretion may fairly describe the Congressman's encounter, but wouldn't it also be fairly described as an inappropriate relationship? Either way, we intend to deplore its revelation, at length and in detail.


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Cover Date: October 19, 1998

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