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When he attacked Clinton's character during the second debate, Dole made a point of saying he was talking only about matters of "public" ethics, not private behavior. On the stump, he wasn't hitting the issue of Clinton's character as hard as many Republicans wanted him to. Reed and Buckley knew why: Dole was worried that a story would break about his character. Meredith Roberts, 63, an editor for a Washington trade association, was telling reporters that she and Dole had had an affair from 1968 through 1970, when he was still married to his first wife. Roberts had been talking to TIME and the Washington Post since early August, but she did not wish to speak for publication. She said she felt "no rancor" toward Dole but wanted those who wrote about Dole to know that "he is not the great moral figure he's portraying himself to be."
For much of the fall, the story hung like a sword over Dole and his aides. To gauge the depth of the problem, Dole's general counsel, Doug Wurth, arranged a meeting with Roberts. Over cocktails, Wurth asked questions and took notes. Had Roberts kept a record of her meetings with Dole? (Yes, she had kept detailed datebooks.) Did anyone else know of their relationship? (She had told several friends at the time.) Did anyone see the two together? (Her roommate had spoken with Dole as he was leaving her apartment.) Dole and his lieutenants would neither confirm nor deny Roberts' story, but Buckley, Warfield and Will urged the editors of TIME and the Washington Post not to print it, and emphasized that Dole (unlike some of his surrogates) had not made an issue of Clinton's alleged dalliances.
Although they said the story was irrelevant, Reed and Buckley did not want to put that to a public test. Dole might be especially vulnerable because he was running as "the better man." He had told the Washington Post that he was always faithful, and he was on the record as saying such issues were of legitimate concern. After reports of adultery forced Gary Hart to drop out of the 1988 presidential race, Dole told the New York Times, "Once you declare you're a candidate, all bets are off. Everything up to that point is fair game."
By late September, the National Enquirer had learned of Roberts and offered to pay her ($50,000 by her account) for her story. She refused the money, but the Enquirer published the story anyway. Outraged at what she called "distortions" by the Enquirer, Roberts then spoke on the record to other reporters. But no major paper or TV news program ran it.
The story took some of Dole's top advisers by surprise. Bill Bennett, Dole's national co-chairman and the best-selling author of The Book of Virtues, didn't know whether the allegations were true but had no doubt they raised a legitimate issue. "People should not cheat on their wives, whether they're presidential candidates or not, Democrats or Republicans," he says. "It's wrong. Last time I checked, Jews and Christians had a Commandment about that." The story had a chilling effect on Dole, who found it difficult to separate private and public character and go hard after the latter. Explained one campaign official: "He has trouble dealing with any kind of nuanced message."
MONEY CHANGES EVERYTHING