"HAVE YOU EVER COMMITTED ADULTERY?" The question has already been posed to Dan Quayle, and it's very likely to be asked of every other prospective candidates for president in 1999, the Republican candidates anyway. Diane Sawyer even asked it of Ken Starr. Starr and Quayle, it's the wrong answer. With the 2000 election soon the begin in earnest, it's important to get the answer right.
It's tempting to agree with William Safire, who has been recommending for the past decade that the right answer is a flat: Go to hell. If every candidate -- the strictly faithful as well as the occasionally erring -- were to deliver it, three important things would be accomplished.
In the first place, it would underscore the point the Republicans have been driving home until their jaws hurt: Despite what President Clinton and his ever-more-exotic circle of friends believe (What do they make of Larry Flynt at Renaissance Weekend?), the Monica Lewinsky scandal has only incidentally been about sex. Exposing the unchastity of politicians is not fact a Republican obsession: Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Pat Buchanan, and Gary Bauer have never pursued the "scorched earth" methods of the Clinton White House in 1998 alone. The Bush white House never shopped around stories about the sexual orientation of Lawrence Walsh's attorneys, as the Clinton white House did with Starr's investigators; Bob Packwood never called into question the sexual virtue of the women who brought charges against him, but Bill Clinton ("You know what they say about her in Richmond. . . . ") did.
The Safire answer is appealing, in the second place, because politicians are indeed entitle to personal privacy. Scandalous allegations about the sex lives of politicians' wives (such as the stories purveyed about Nancy Reagan by born-again Clinton defender Maureen Dowd on the front page of the New York Times almost a decade before anybody had ever heard of Monica Lewinsky) or charges that a seemingly faithful husband has cheated on his wife (such as the brought against George Bush by veteran Clinton defender Joe Conason in Spy magazine in 1992) or inquiries into the rumored homosexuality of fathers of children (such as that forced upon Michael Huffington by Hillary's new best friend David Brock in the current issue of Esquire); none of these belong in the public realm. A good, loud "Go to hell" might help Washington's journalists to understand that all politicians are entitled to a modicum of privacy, even if they happen to be Republicans, and even if they conduct their liaisons somewhere other than in the Oval Office.
The third and final benefit of the Safire answer is that it protects the sexually virtuous from the temptation to brag and preen. It's inadvisable to tell the world that you have been a faithful husband for the same reason that it's inadvisable to tell it you scored a perfect 1600 on your SATs. Nobody likes a showoff.
And yet, for all this, the Safire answer is flawed. Perhaps it's best to think of the Safire answer as the political equivalent of Euclidean geometry: workable most of the time, but not the word. For the model spouse and the ordinary sinner, the right answer is no answer. But for the politician with a lot of skeletons in the closet, that won't do.
An ordinary sinner -- the senator who cheated on a first husband a dozen years ago; the congressman with a wife in Cedar Rapids and a girlfriend in Washington -- can with reasonable discretion and spousal forbearance maintain the appearance of conventional family life that large numbers of voters still expect from their politicians. But it's obviously going to be much harder for a sexually compulsive person like a Bill Clinton or a Gary Hart to maintain that appearance. Too many people know too many things about such a person: not just those who have been partners in these affairs, but also the friends they blab to, the staffers who tidy up after them, and the journalists who can't be kept in the dark indefinitely. The effort to maintain politically valuable illusions when so many people are aware of the awkward truth risks plunging a candidate into a whirlwind of lies.
Better, then, not to try to create the illusion in the first place. Instead of saying "Go to hell" while holding the hand of a husband or a wife, a candidate with a checkered past would be well advised to signal that his or her record as a spouse falls short and to avoid anything that looks like an effort to package himself as the ideal family man. That may sound like impractical advice, especially in the coming Year of Character, but in fact it's the most practical advice of all.
Back in 1992, the harshest criticism of Clinton's character, after all, was not that he was a philanderer but that he was a chronic and shameless liar. That's the harshest criticism even now. Consider this, from the December 25 issue of the Forward, a New York Jewish newspaper:
President Clinton stood before the Palestinian National Council and spoke of two profoundly emotional experiences in less than 24 hours. One of these meetings was his meeting with the children of jailed Palestinian-Arab terrorists. The other experience was meeting Israelis, some little children whose fathers had been killed in the conflict with Palestinians. Israeli government sources who would speak only on condition of anonymity said Mr. Clinton never net with the Israeli children. The White House and State Department did not return calls about whether such a meeting took place. There was no such even on the public schedule of the trip.
Twenty years of misrepresentation of his marriage was the school is which Clinton learned to lie like this.
What we want to know about the people who seek to lead the country is whether they can be trusted. Adultery in a politician worries us because it reveals an ability to deceive. Will the politician who betrays his vow to an intimate also betray his oath to his constituents? The answer to that question is not always yes. But the case of Bill Clinton reminds us that the answer is not always no, either. In Clinton's case, in fact, the forms of treachery blend so smoothly into one another that it is hard to say where one starts and the other stops.
Post-Clinton, memories of this double-treachery will linger. Which means that a politician with a very checkered sexual past must be able to prove himself trustworthy in other ways. Instead of saying "Go to hell," he must be able, without babbling on about things that are none of the public's business, to reassure the public that he knows how to keep faith. This can be done. John McCain of Arizona has done it: a man who busted up his honor in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp. It cannot, however, be done in the way that the Clintons did -- by cajoling an ambitious spouse into projecting a false image of family bliss and then asserting one's right to privacy whenever the press stumbles across a fact that calls the false image into question. That is how one converts a lie to one's spouse into a lie to the electorate. And that is a lie that a would-be leader of the country should scorn to tell -- or, through the artful or blustery avoidance of questions, even to insinuate.
David Frum, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is completing a book on the 1970s.