The Letter Formerly Known As Scarlet

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MARGARET CARLSONLike most people, I'm sorry that a man as decent as HouseJudiciary chairman Henry Hyde came to be outed for infidelity. Igot the same letter about Hyde's affair from Florida retireeNorman Sommer that 57 other reporters received. I tossed it intothe large pile of mail I will never answer, not because it waswritten in crayon (actually, it was neatly typed, lucid andprovided names) but because one person's bad behavior doesn'tmitigate another's. Nor does Hyde's affair take away from hisqualifications to chair possible impeachment proceedings. If youwere to set up a he who is without sin standard for castingstones, few stones would ever be cast in Washington.Republicans cleverly distracted attention from the Salon magazinearticle about Hyde by charging that it had been planted by theWhite House, as if stories magically appear on desktops courtesyof West Wing scribes. With poor Hyde in play, as we pundits sayto justify piling on, I called Sommer to find out if he thoughtthe world was a better place for having been informed about Hyde.He was too busy to talk; NBC was filming, CNN was in the on-deckcircle, and print reporters were stacked up like jets atLaGuardia.It's that pileup that shows what is really wrong with exposingHyde's past, aside from hurting him and leaving even innocentbystanders--like the press!--at risk of a sexual inquisition.Holding up adultery to the light of the 24-hour news cycle hasbleached the scarlet A. When used to bludgeon a political foe,adultery is not a human tragedy but a political one. Will ithurt his poll numbers? becomes the question, not how broken andscarred a spouse and children may be. With the press reveling inscandal (although we insist that we are not), even good peoplemake bad excuses, searching for an asterisk to put beside theiradultery (It's old, I was young, It's over, My wifeforgave me). The result is to define adultery down (withcredit to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who argued six yearsago that we were defining deviancy down by failing to beoutraged by the social decay all around us).We expect excuses from Clinton. His supporters argue that thevoters elected an admitted adulterer, so they should havefactored in the possibility that he would cheat again. The Whatdid you expect? excuse rests alongside Other Presidents havedone it, Sophisticated world leaders are not alarmed, Itwasn't really sex, and Whatever it was, it was private.PAGE 1  |  
 
Surely Hyde, a straight-shooting Catholic who speaks eloquentlyand frequently on the sanctity of marriage, does not believe inan I was experimenting with adultery type of excuse, whenadultery is a mortal sin by his standards, nor in youthfulindiscretions beyond the statute of limitations. But Hydeshrugged off accountability. I'm an expert on age 41, when hisfive-year affair began, and it's hardly young. Maturity shouldhave kicked in by that time. Yes, it was a long time ago andHyde's marriage survived, but the pain he caused in the Snodgrassmarriage and to the three children was lasting, with wounds deepand fresh enough that the husband and a daughter agonized over itpublicly. It wasn't Adultery Lite to them, and Hyde would havereinforced family values by affirming that it was a terriblething he did and he is deeply sorry and ashamed.Two other politicians spun their adultery downward.Representative Helen Chenoweth, who's been using Clinton's sinsin campaign ads and benefited from her opponent's sexual failingsin the past, explained that she wasn't married when she had hersix-year affair and didn't lie about it. However, her paramourwas married, and an Idaho paper released an interview in whichshe had lied about it. She claims that God has forgiven her. (Howdoes she know?) Now she may be content to discuss issues. Thenthere's moralizing Representative Dan Burton, who was veryself-forgiving when it was disclosed that he has a child born outof wedlock during an affair he had with a state employee when hewas an Indiana legislator. He pleaded all the usual excuses andadded that he was coming forward on his own (although not untilhe knew the news was going to be published) and that unlike theperson he called a scumbag, he had never lied (although hedidn't own up on the birth certificate). He never said adulteryis wrong.In the new movie One True Thing, Meryl Streep tries to describethe trade-offs of marriage to her daughter, who is crushed tolearn that the father she idolizes, a charismatic Englishprofessor, has done more than mentor his teaching assistants.Streep, who has conducted a lovely domestic symphony while hegads about, explains that the things you think you will never putup with, you end up putting up with because in the morning thechildren are all scrubbed, the coffee is perking, and everythingyou love is there in the kitchen and you can't risk losing itover an affair. What a message that sends. I can see why shewouldn't impeach her husband, but why not censure him?The next politician who gets caught--and in sexual Armageddonthere will be another--should not treat adultery as excusable orcommonplace or less than a terrible offense. Prohibition and the55-m.p.h. speed limit may have been ended with the general outcryEverybody does it. But no one is going to repeal Thou shaltnot commit adultery. It glues the world together. It should behonored, especially by those forced to own up to its breach.  |  PAGE 2