Adultery Factor in US Politics

Georgia politician's survival is another signal of changing American views on how to weigh leaders' personal lives.

When Mike Bowers admitted to a longtime extramarital affair last spring, some experts thought his political career was over.

Not only had the former Georgia attorney general had a 10-year relationship with a state employee, but during that time he had defended Georgia's sodomy laws before the US Supreme Court and noted that adultery was a misdemeanor, inviting charges of hypocrisy.

Yet almost a year later, the Republican candidate for governor of Georgia is still in the race. He faces an uphill battle for the GOP nomination, but the fact that Mr. Bowers is still a candidate at all in this "Bible belt" state - and running a respectable second in the polls - shows how times have changed.

If nothing else, the sexual allegations that have dogged President Clinton have taught America's political class that having a complicated personal life is "not an automatic killer," says Democratic pollster Fred Yang.

But that doesn't mean that politicians can come out, admit sin - or deny it - and expect the public to move on and simply consider their candidacy on the basis of, say, their proposals for the tax code.

Rather, much also depends on what else a candidate has to offer - such as leadership and vision, or even charisma - and whether a candidate's indiscretions caused visible harm to others.

"We're not talking about a people without a moral bottom line," says Alan Wolfe, author of a new book on middle-class values called "One Nation, After All." "There is a moral bottom line: Don't be cruel."

Still, GOP virtue czar William Bennett thinks that for Republicans, marital infidelity remains an insurmountable blemish. "I've already said to Republican candidates who've had adulterous relationships ... forget it, you're not gonna get the nomination," Mr. Bennett told a recent Monitor breakfast.

"Reporters may look into this, but we don't want to defend allegations," he says. "I don't know about Democrats, but Republicans who fooled around are gonna have a lot of trouble. I don't think that's necessarily right, but that's the way it is."

In other words, as long as the Republicans call themselves the party of "family values," they may have a harder time than Democrats do overcoming adultery and other immoral behavior.

Recent history, however, has shown it can be done. Rep. Ken Calvert (R) of California won reelection in 1994, even after being caught in a parked car with a prostitute. He later called the behavior "inappropriate" and said he had been depressed over his divorce and his father's suicide. Congressman Calvert won reelection again in 1996, and now seems to have a comfortable hold on the seat.

FOR some politicians, a good "mea culpa" can go a long way in a nation with strong religious underpinnings and a willingness to consider redemption. Indeed, some born-again Christians, an active voting bloc, had checkered pasts before their conversions and may be willing to forgive confessed sins.

In Bowers's case, there's been no claim of religious conversion. But Whit Ayres, his Atlanta-based pollster, hopes voters are still willing to make some distinctions. He points out that Bowers didn't do what many other men do - divorce their wives, marry their mistresses, and face few questions.

"[Mike] tried to keep his marriage together, which he ultimately succeeded in doing," says Mr. Ayres, who notes that Bowers's major competition for the GOP nomination, businessman Guy Millner, is on his third marriage with two divorces behind him. "[Mike's] been married for 35 years and kept his family together."

Clinton also benefits from the intact family scenario. His wife has stuck by his side through 22 years of marriage, and he appears close to his daughter.

"If Hillary were visibly upset or Chelsea was broken, people would react pretty differently," says Mr. Wolfe.

Still, according to Bennett, the moral bottom line has been lowered. The country has regressed in terms of adherence to basic standards, a trend he calls "the Clintonization of the culture." And he knows that no candidate for the 2000 presidential race will be immune from questions about the past. If House Speaker Newt Gingrich decides to run for the Republican presidential nomination, he'll have to explain his divorce from his first wife, Bennett says.

"When you run for president now, ... not just your rsum but your entire life is open to inspection," says Bennett.

"The press is in a difficult position here. Having explored the sexual life of Bill Clinton, it seems to me it cannot back off and say we're not going to explore the sexual life of Frank Keating and Jack Kemp," he adds, referring to two other prominent Republican politicians.

Aspirants for 2000 are already jumping into the "have you ever" game. On "Meet the Press" March 15, former Vice President Dan Quayle volunteered that he had never committed adultery. Journalists and political opponents will no doubt investigate whether that's so, as they will with all the other candidates who inevitably will answer the same question.

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