New rules of the road
In the post-Monica world, presidential candidates face new questions about personal behavior even as voters signal they don't care much who did what
By Richard Lacayo
February 15, 1999
Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who would like to be President, held a funny kind of film screening last week. At the invitation of his campaign organization, 50 or so journalists, political operatives and Senators joined him at the Washington headquarters of the National Cable Television Association. The occasion was a private screening of a documentary about McCain produced for the A&E network series Biography. McCain is one of those baroque pearls of American politics, lustrous but irregular, so nobody was surprised that the film made the most of his days as a Navy flyer and a Vietnam-war POW or that it played up his bumpy Senate fights against Big Tobacco and for campaign-finance reform. But it also went long and deep into how he piled up demerits at the U.S. Naval Academy and lost several planes on training runs. It raked over his hard-partying past, his affair that destroyed his first marriage, and his second wife's onetime addiction to pain-killers. Before the final credits rolled, it had also worked through his involvement (and exoneration) in the Keating Five savings and loan scandal of the 1980s.
Not exactly PT-109. When J.F.K. was gearing up for his 1960 presidential run, the Kennedys spread the story of his bravery in the Pacific, not his conquests in Georgetown. But that was when smart candidates wanted charisma. Now they want cover, which, oddly enough, requires them to make pre-emptive strikes on themselves. In the aftermath of the White House scandal, it's a good bet that "youthful indiscretions" will get you more press than anything you say about school vouchers. Will voters care? If the past year teaches anything, it's that, up to a point still undefined, they won't. But for now, it's a smart move to get your shortcomings on the table before your opponents and the media do. Welcome to campaign biography in the post-Lewinsky era, the world of kiss and tell on yourself.
McCain's unusual movie night was just one sign of how the Year of Monica is changing campaign 2000. But in the same way that there is no consensus on what the past year was finally about--sex and lies? sexual witch hunts and hypocrisy?--no one is yet sure what its repercussions will be. Watergate was followed by an era of weakened presidential leadership and moralizing politics. But Watergate was about clear abuses of presidential power, not middle-aged sex play and the attendant embarrassments, and it ended with Richard Nixon in pieces on the ground. By comparison, Bill Clinton is merely scuffed and dented, and his accusers are on the defensive, while most people profess indifference to the whole matter. So everything that happened in the past year points to two conclusions that appear contrary but may not be. One is that in the next election, what used to be called the private life of a candidate will be anything but private. The other is that certain personal shortcomings may not be as important to voters as they once seemed.
For the American political class--that loose aggregate of politicians, pollsters, consultants, campaign managers and media commentators--the questions about post-Monica fallout are anything but academic. The 2000 campaign trail is already moving through terrain pocked and cratered by the scandal. The early front runners are trying to define an acceptable zone of privacy, but they find themselves in a world in which the only rule is that there are no rules. Whether and how voters react to one's past may depend on how serious it was--a one-night stand or cartwheeling adulteries? a lot of pot or a little cocaine?--and just how long ago it was. And the process by which those episodes are dug up and publicized is now a free-for-all. The Year of Monica was driven forward by outsiders and scandal prospectors of every kind, from the anti-Clinton tycoon Richard Mellon Scaife to the freelance spider Lucianne Goldberg and the Jupiter of sleaze, Larry Flynt. "There's a cottage industry of digging up dirt and slinging mud," says Kyle McSlarrow, chairman of Quayle 2000. "The candidates themselves will bend over backward to stay away from it, but they've lost control."
Even if mainstream reporters refrain from asking questions about sex and drugs--don't laugh, it could happen--no one can stop an old girlfriend or dealer from calling a press conference. And if the Establishment media play these down, there will still be the Matt Drudges, Howard Sterns and Flynts to play them up. So whether or not an old acquaintance with sex and drugs should be forgotten by voters, it will take a candidate with nerves of steel to withstand the vetting process.
That process is already under way. As early as last March, on Meet the Press, Dan Quayle was asked if he expected to be hit with the adultery question. Quayle said he did and thought it was improper. But he went on to volunteer that he had never had an affair. "To say anything else would have raised a firestorm," explains McSlarrow. Some Republicans are experimenting with what was called in the Watergate era the "modified limited hangout"--an answer that seems forthright, even embarrassing, but stops well short of the bald truth. Earlier this month McCain was questioned by CNN anchor Bernard Shaw, who noted the affair that McCain has already acknowledged during his first marriage, then asked whether a politician's private acts "should be part of public discourse." After again admitting he was "responsible for the breakup of my first marriage," McCain simply added, "I will not discuss or talk about that anymore."
Similarly, George W. Bush has owned up to a full partying schedule in his younger days. He also says he quit drinking 12 years ago and has been "loyal to my wife." But two weeks ago, a reporter for a New Hampshire TV station asked if he had ever used drugs: "Marijuana? Cocaine?" Though Bush again admitted that he once drank too much, he refused to discuss drugs. "I'm not going to talk about what I did as a child," he said, hiding behind an elastic definition of childhood. "What's relevant is that I have learned from any mistakes that I made."
Some political pros are hoping that the revelations about Clinton and Monica--and for that matter Henry Hyde, Bob Livingston and Thomas Jefferson--will inoculate future candidates against damage. Clinton has made "remarkable scandal commonplace," says Republican consultant Alex Castellanos. "Now to get in trouble, it wouldn't have to be sex with farm animals but with alien farm animals." Ed Gillespie, an adviser to Ohio Representative John Kasich, chairman of the House Budget Committee and would-be President, says, "The public's definition of character has changed. They'd like the President to be an upstanding person. But what they really want to know is, What are your issues? What stand do you take?"
Even so, every potential candidate is rehearsing an answer to the adultery question. "If we could get a caucus of all the candidates to agree to answer, 'None of your damn business,' that would change the world," says a Democratic consultant. "But that won't happen, because the clean guys will want to make the bad guys squirm." And in the G.O.P. it's not just the press they worry about, it's some fellow Republicans, especially those on the Christian right. The Rev. Lou Sheldon, who heads the Traditional Values Coalition, has said he will ask every candidate whether he or she has committed adultery.
A long-shot candidate like Gary Bauer, former head of the Family Research Council, could keep the personal morality issue in play in the primaries. But Jeff Bell, an adviser to Bauer, says he would hesitate to see adultery become a litmus test for candidates. Among conservative Christians, a blemished past "is not a deal breaker," says Bell. What's important is how the candidate handles his own and others' transgressions. "One thing about Evangelicals," says a close adviser to George W. Bush, "they believe that without sin, redemption is not possible. And for them the issue is redemption."
Republicans are hoping they can profit from Clinton's shortcomings in a subtler way, by playing up questions of character without tying them to particulars of sexual behavior. In a speech in New Hampshire last week, Elizabeth Dole talked about how "the presidency has been tarnished...words have been devalued, and institutions have squandered respect." Other Republicans are refining the language they will use to accuse Al Gore of passive complicity in the actions that brought Clinton to the brink of removal from office. "If Clinton is Teflon, Gore may be Velcro for a lot of this," says Castellanos. "At some point, he's got to deny Bill Clinton."
Since Ken Starr and the House Republicans ended the year more unpopular than Clinton, the G.O.P. also needs to distance itself from its obsession with dislodging the President. Conservative activists maintain that there was no way to sidestep impeachment. "The conservative base would have imploded," says Ralph Reed, onetime head of the Christian Coalition who is now a consultant. "We would have gone into 2000 like a three-legged horse."
Republicans know they need to demonstrate that they can accomplish something in Congress. This is why G.O.P. moderates have finally begun to crawl into the light. That much was evident last week in the challenge to the 10% across-the-board tax cut being promoted by Kasich. It's no surprise that Democrats are calling it a giveaway that betrays Social Security, but Kasich's plan is also being rejected by 11 moderates from his own party. Led by Connecticut's Nancy Johnson, they introduced a package of targeted tax cuts that would cost less than a third of the $375 billion price of Kasich's proposal.
Rich Galen, who runs GOPAC, the political-action committee organized by Newt Gingrich, thinks it's best for the G.O.P. to content itself with smaller initiatives like that, at least for a while. After a year of impeachment fever, "the party is just starting to chew solid food again, so it's better to take it in small bites," says Galen. But after Monica, the G.O.P. is divided between hard-liners who cannot abide the thought that Clinton got away and moderates who are worried that the "activist base"--the Christian right and other conservatives who will figure strongly in campaign 2000--is leading the G.O.P. to the loss of both the presidency and the House. All predictions are tentative right now, says William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, but he wouldn't be surprised to see a G.O.P. divided in that fashion all the way to 2000. "We could have a congressional party where moderates are powerful," he says, "and a presidential party dominated by the activists, where the greatest applause line is to praise Henry Hyde."
Meanwhile, John McCain is trying to get used to the new, uncertain politics. The A&E film about him, the one he went out of his way to promote, is so unflattering in places, especially in telling about his extramarital life, that he called his 12-year-old son afterward to talk him through it. A few days later, McCain was off to New York and California, pursuing his exploratory presidential bid. Right now, when all the rules are suspended, every campaign is exploratory.
--Reported by Jay Branegan and Michael Duffy/Washington
MORE TIME STORIES:
Cover Date: February 22, 1999
D.C.'s best grudge match
New rules of the road
Pundits: Out of gas?
Star Wars: The sequel
Garrison Keillor: The Republicans were right, but--
Margaret Carlson: Sighs and whimpers
James Carville: How I'd throttle the GOP
Mary Matalin: How I'd whip the Democrats
Lance Morrow: Why I'm still angry
Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: How history will judge him
Deborah Tannen: Freedom to talk dirty