Private lives and public office

IS this the political year of blatant intrusion into the private lives of public figures? Has the press been unduly eager to blacken Messrs. Gary Hart, Joseph Biden, Pat Robertson, and, most recently, Douglas Ginsburg? The public is increasingly interested in information on the character of those moving toward high public office. This is a positive development; it should improve the quality of those in government.

Americans are not absorbed in private-life irrelevancies. They are rightly questioning the aspirations of those who have not measured up to the ``good example'' requirement voters are now setting for those seeking high office.

I was listening to a radio talk show just a few hours before Judge Ginsburg threw in the towel. The subject was his admitted use of marijuana. The moderator called it a ``fly speck,'' something that ``everybody did back in the '60s.''

Some callers agreed with him, telling of their own experiments as youths with the drug. Then a man called in who said he had gone through that earlier, tumultuous period of rebellion without smoking pot; it was not true, he said, that ``everybody did it.'' He noted that Mr. Ginsburg, relatively recently and while a college teacher, had deliberately broken the law by using marijuana. If he were allowed to sit on the highest court, the caller said, ``what will I tell my young daughters?''

Early experimentation with marijuana might be excused by many voters if it were only a youthful indiscretion since abandoned. But even such ``flings'' - since admitted and regretted by presidential candidates Albert Gore and Bruce Babbitt and some other public figures - could be relevant to public performance. Even if Ginsburg's acts were confined to his youth, it would still have been germane for the Senate to question him closely on his attitude toward drugs.

Is the press picking on public figures? Some supporters of Mr. Biden, who got caught in plagiarisms and falsifying his college record, think he got a raw deal from the media. Indeed, while probably ready to oppose Ginsburg, the senator jumped in to side with the court appointee on the marijuana flap, asserting that the judge's behavior was - like his own ``mistakes'' with plagiarism - really inconsequential.

Voters thought the Biden disclosures could relate to how honest a president he would be if they put him in the White House. That's why he dropped out of the race, not because the press blew it out of proportion.

By leaping in to defend Ginsburg, Biden may have won some favor with those liberals who use marijuana or favor legalization. But the mood of the 1980s is not that of the '60s. The public is now anti-drug.

Alcohol is not generally included in the definition. But the movement against drinking and driving has made much progress during this period when people are more attuned to the harm coming from drug use. Indeed, if there is a thought culture today among youth, it is one of jogging, watching what foods one consumes, and doing all sorts of things to keep fit. Americans are learning about the risks of using drugs.

The press is basically on the right track in watching for private behavior that relates or could relate negatively to the performance of public officials. The press can go too far. It didn't with Senator Hart. Hart had even asked for monitoring of his private life. Nor did it go too far with Biden. Perhaps it did dig up some information that should have been left alone in its revelations about Mr. Robertson. But Robertson, as a clergyman, was bound to receive particularly close scrutiny. It was inevitable that he would be held to standards he had once set for others.

I take issue with the contention by New York Times columnist Tom Wicker that Ginsburg ``became one more victim of a moralistic new standard that is more deplorable than the private behavior it condemns.''

Hart and Biden fell victim to actions that most Americans rightly deplore. Both men revealed sides to their character that are relevant to what kinds of presidents they would be. As Washington Post columnist Meg Greenfield put it, ``The Hart dispute was never about judgment. It was about values. It was about the way a 50-year-old man who would be president chooses to live, about his relationships with and respect for other people, about his honesty....'' And the disclosures about Biden told us about a man who, as president, might play fast and loose with the facts.

Ginsburg's credentials as a judge and a deep legal thinker were pretty thin. So he might have been rejected anyway. His use of marijuana probably hastened his exit.

But the public's reaction to the disclosure about Ginsburg is to be applauded. This was no youngster fooling around with marijuana; at the time he was 33 years old and an assistant professor at the Harvard Law School.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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