Our Adultery Obsession Isn't Adult

In New Hampshire in 1987, after a well-publicized tryst with a Miami woman, candidate Gary Hart was asked by Paul Taylor of The Washington Post whether he had ever committed adultery. Hart refused to answer, but later told his press secretary, "This thing is never going to end, is it? Look, let's just go home."

In 1992, George Bush was asked by Mary Tillotson of CNN whether he had ever committed adultery. The "Big A," Bush called it, and said, no, he never had.

Last Sunday, Dan Quayle, who in 1992 fended off suggestions of an involvement in 1980 with lobbyist Paula Parkinson during a Florida golf weekend, became the first candidate of the year 2000 presidential season to disclaim adultery. He volunteered his denial on NBC's "Meet the Press," responding to the question of whether marital fidelity has become a qualification for high office.

Whatever happens in President Clinton's face-off with his women accusers, so dramatized last Sunday night by Kathleen Willey on "60 Minutes," the politics of sex has clearly become a witch's brew likely to poison the political process for a long time to come.

WHAT has happened, as scholar Norman Ornstein points out, is that sex as a political weapon is becoming institutionalized. Ideologically minded foundations that once dealt mainly in policy have developed investigative arms probing for scandal. The laws on sexual discrimination and harassment provide an avenue for a discovery process, enabling the accuser to search for damaging information from the past, backed by the threat of perjury charges.

In the case of President Clinton, a civil suit for sexual misconduct has intersected with an independent counsel's criminal investigation, whose beginnings in an Arkansas land deal are all but forgotten.

Gary Hart said in 1987, "What it gets down to is not crime, but sin." But now we face what, in effect, is becoming the criminalization of sin.

The presidency has already been substantially diminished and is likely to be further diminished. How many potential candidates will in the future be driven away from electoral politics can only be surmised.

It is hard to say when the public will determine that obsession with adultery is not necessarily adult.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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