Officials Learn Infidelity Is Still a Career-Stopper

Public bemoans more leaders snared in web of adultery

This spring public figures all across America have been learning, often to their regret, about the power of their own pasts.

Marital indiscretions from long ago have rebounded against everyone from a top candidate to head the US military to a Georgia gubernatorial hopeful. Meanwhile, Paula Jones has won Supreme Court backing to pursue her harassment case against Bill Clinton - while the president's lawyer threatened to make Ms. Jones's own sexual history a legal issue.

The result has been a national examination of morality and the cleansing properties - or lack thereof - of time. Is adultery committed a decade ago still relevant? If so, is it grounds for destroying a career? And should the military treat philandering more harshly than civilian society?

It's a debate made more complex by such things as the unique structure of military hierarchy and the use - some would say manipulation - of the media by aggressive attorneys.

"It's your own sense of probity and relevance" that should serve as a guide to answering these questions about people's pasts, says William Bennett, "The Book of Virtues" author. "There are no rules for relevance."

Adultery is somehow an old-fashioned word evoking Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter," but Americans still take it seriously. Overwhelming majorities of US citizens tell pollsters that they disapprove of cheating on a spouse.

Some 75 percent of respondents to a recent National Opinion Research Center survey said that adultery was wrong, up from 69 percent in the early '70s.

But public disapproval of adultery isn't matched by a desire to see offenders in the dock. Prosecutions are extremely rare, even though the act is a crime in half of US states. Georgia gubernatorial hopeful Mike Bowers - who admitted to his own extramarital affair last week - points out that in his 16 years as attorney general, no Georgian was even charged with adultery.

Against this background, it's easy to see how the spate of high-profile adultery accusations has raised contradictory impulses. Most Americans believe such acts are wrong - but were perhaps surprised by the tenor of the military's response.

The question now is whether these strictures are applied evenhandedly. Secretary of Defense William Cohen argues there are key differences between the case of Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston, a top candidate for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and that of 1st Lt. Kelly Flinn, the B-52 pilot who took a less-than-honorable discharge rather than face a court-martial for adultery, lying, and other offenses.

General Ralston's offense occurred 13 years ago when he was separated from his wife, according to Secretary Cohen. It did not threaten military discipline or order, because he was a student at the National War College and commanding no troops.

But weekend revelations indicated that Ralston's affair may have been lengthier than previously indicated, and it was expected that he would withdraw his candidacy shortly.

To some outside the military, Cohen's defense of Ralston seemed an exercise in splitting hairs. Minority leader Sen. Thomas Daschle (D) of South Dakota said if a double standard was being applied to Ralston then "the Pentagon needs to reevaluate whether this [prospective] nomination ought to go forward."

Jones's past presents an altogether different situation. Last week, Clinton's lawyer, Robert Bennett, hinted he would make Jones's past an issue if she persisted. His threat - since withdrawn - was roundly criticized. It seemed a throwback to the days before shield laws that are designed to protect women who bring sexual misconduct charges.

But legal experts say a woman's past sexual activity can still figure in harassment or rape cases, in certain circumstances. Judges now often allow certain aspects of a woman's history to become evidence, on a case-by-case basis.

If Jones "had previously accused a state official of making a pass at her in a way similar to what she says about the president, that would obviously be relevant," says Stephen Schulhofer of the University of Chicago Law School. No one has even hinted that Jones did this, he adds.

"Outsiders can't make judgements about whether Mr. Bennett was right or wrong without knowing what he has. And he isn't talking about that," says Mr. Schulhofer.

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