The Road To The White House -- The Infidelity Issue: Where Does One Draw The Line?

Sainthood has never been a prerequisite for the American presidency.

But as accounts of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's alleged sexual adventures spill from the tabloids to mainstream media, the question of character once again tops the political agenda.

Clinton contends that Gennifer Flowers' steamy account of a 12-year love affair in the current edition of the supermarket tabloid Star is untrue. And others question her veracity because the Star paid Flowers an undisclosed sum for its interview.

Nevertheless, Clinton's alleged affair strikes a familiar nerve in the body politic. Voters who rejected Gary Hart in 1988 for his Monkey Business fling and who found out only after the fact that Presidents Kennedy, Eisenhower, Johnson and Roosevelt all cheated on their wives must grapple again with a familiar question: Is fidelity a measure of a candidate's character?

"Fidelity is always a legitimate issue, but there are gradations to infidelity," said Steven Wayne, professor of government at Georgetown University.

"In the case of Bill Clinton, I don't think an indiscretion he may have committed in the past would necessarily disqualify him from the presidency," he said. "But if there's a proven pattern to this behavior and if his responses to it are deceitful, that's another issue, and a disqualifying one."


Fredrick Koenig, a professor of social psychology at Tulane University in New Orleans, puts it more succinctly: "Gentlemen may screw around, but they don't lie about it."

Koenig, author of "Rumor in the Marketplace: The Social Psychology of Hearsay," said Clinton's earlier disclosures that his marriage had been troubled and that he and his wife, Hillary, had worked things out will stand in his favor.

"If the rumors prove true, I suspect most people will be willing to accept that he may have been less than celibate during a period of marital stress," he said.

In the overheated world of Louisiana politics that Koenig observes, adultery is not seen to be incompatible with leadership.

"We've had good governors and bad governors," he said. "The very worst of them were faithful to their wives."

Jane Danowitz spent four years working for former Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry, who is now serving time in prison on drug charges. Barry's marital indiscretions were legendary and Danowitz, now executive director of the Women's Campaign Fund, has thought a lot about the interface between a politician's public and private lives.

"When public officials sleep around, it becomes a serious issue when they begin to view themselves as above reproach," she said. "That's what got Gary Hart in trouble."

The Star article includes photos of Flowers lying barefoot on a bed in a provocative pose. This apparent willingness to exploit her sexuality gives Danowitz another reason for concern.

"I know that these are only rumors. But as a professional woman, I view as suspect any bright, educated male politician who would derive satisfaction - sexual or otherwise - from a bimbo," she said. "It would seem that there's a flaw in the individual's maturity or sense of self. You wonder how an elected official who can be progressive in the political arena could be so regressive in their private lives."


The real tragedy of the Clinton affair is that it has eclipsed such issues as unemployment, the economy and the recession, said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.

"It's another example of the `Geraldo' mentality that has gripped the press, another narrowly defined character issue," said Sabato, author of "Feeding Frenzy," a stinging critique of media coverage of the 1988 election.

"Before a sexual indiscretion is considered a relevant character issue, it must be demonstrated that a person's public performance is affected," Sabato said. "If there is proven recklessness, compulsion and manifest indiscretion - as in the case of Kennedy or Hart, then tell us. But nothing of the sort has been established with Clinton."

Sabato criticized news media that would not pursue the Clinton story themselves but are nevertheless running versions of the Star's story. That's due in part, he said, to Americans' schizoid expectations of their leaders.

"Americans have enormously high moral standards for their public officials that they do not apply to themselves," he said. "We are doomed to be disappointed because we expect our leaders to be worldly and saintly at the same time. Odds are, we can't have both."