Marjorie Williams on Politicians' Private Lives

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Vanity Fair and Washington Post writer Marjorie Williams garnered accolades in the final years of her life for her moving writings about her battle with liver cancer. But earlier in her career, Williams—who wrote frequently for the Washington Monthly—was best known for her penetrating profiles of Washington’s political elites. Writing in the Monthly in 1991, Williams made the case that digging into public figures’ private lives was not just a legitimate journalistic project, but a necessary one.

Iity the politician, beset by vultures, fanatical reformers, and a moralistic press. For at least a decade, it’s been open season on anyone foolish enough to run for office or serve in government—an age of “mindless cannibalism,” in the words of former speaker of the House and onetime entree Jim Wright.

Or so says the chorus of analysts who have lately specialized in second thoughts about the cloud of scandal that enshrouded the Reagan administration and then drifted down Pennsylvania Avenue to engulf the House leadership and the Keating Five. They argue that the ethical, financial, political, and sexual scandals of recent years represent a kind of hysteria, and that Americans in general and journalists in particular need to reevaluate how far they are willing to go in judging the human creatures elected to govern us.

Standards really have changed in Washington, in a lot of different areas. Lest mine seem a knee-jerk reaction by one of the press corps jackals, I must grant some of the specifics. It is horrible to have a mob of journalists camped out in your begonias. Yes, journalists too often rely on group instinct to set their narrative direction during a scandal-in-progress. And critics quite rightly criticize the press when it prints or broadcasts unfounded rumors on the grounds that the existence of the rumor is itself news because everybody—that is, in the community of a thousand or so people who make up insider politics—is talking about it.

But my observation, in five years of Washington journalism, has been that the major media more often betray news consumers through excessive coziness, power lust, and the simple eagerness to be liked than through the will to drive their hatchets into the powerful men and women they cover. In Washington reporting it isn’t true that all the laurels go to the writer who kills the king; success comes more easily to the one who befriends him.

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Critics of the “new moralism” fear the press corps as a pack of teetotaling, prudish character cops. But the best argument for an expansive approach to reporting on politicians’ backgrounds, habits, histories, and families has very little to do with vice. At the end of Freud’s century we understand that people are infinitely complex beings who integrate a huge number of motives and passions in everything they do. Man is not easily compartmentalized, as Washington has long liked to believe; weaknesses and strengths may all be relevant.

This complexity is what journalists are edging toward when they mutter their arguments about how something or other speaks to a candidate’s “judgment.” We have only begun to invent a journalism that can write honestly and responsibly about the subtleties of human nature in politics, but I do believe that is what we are trying to do, and that it is a laudable goal.

Finally, there are cases that do not pose themselves as familiar questions of public interest, but of which the public should unquestionably be told. An excellent recent case was the Washington Post’s publication, in the spring of 1989, of a story detailing the ordeal of a woman named Pamela Small. Sixteen years earlier she had been senselessly attacked in a store by a clerk who lured her to a back room, pounded her skull in with a hammer, and left her to die.

She survived, but her attacker served only twenty-seven months in a county jail. One reason for his lenient treatment was his relation, by marriage, to Rep. Jim Wright, who interceded on his behalf and promised him a job. Over the years, John Mack had worked his way up to become a top aide to Wright and perhaps the most powerful staffer in the House.

When Small finally decided to tell her story, the reaction in political Washington was astonishing: Oh, said many people on the Hill. We knew that. It turned out that most of the reporters covering the Hill had known about Mack’s crime but had concluded that he’d paid his debt to society. The crime had taken place long ago; and, after all, he was a source. So they hadn’t thought to mention it—not even, in many cases, to their editors.

The Post was widely criticized for running the story in the midst of Wright’s ethics troubles. But it was a riveting story, and it said some mighty riveting things about the culture of Capitol Hill that a man had so easily sloughed off the burden of an unfathomably vicious crime. Surely ordinary men and women, the people out there paying Mack one of the highest salaries in government, had a right to consider whether there are or should be limits to the concepts of rehabilitation and atonement. (When the story ran, they did, and apparently there were. Mack resigned under pressure a week later.)

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Journalists will go on debating what should and should not be grist for their mill. Standards will continue to vary enough so that there will be no clear “statute of limitations,” no bright line dividing the areas of life a politician will and won’t be seeing on the evening news. The lack of consensus will be confusing and sometimes messy. But recent events suggest that the public is capable of a carefully modulated response to “scandalous” news about public figures. Think, for example, of the different reactions to the dope-smoking pasts of two Supreme Court nominees. Douglas Ginsburg was judged harshly because he had smoked marijuana in the presence of students while a professor at Harvard Law School. Clarence Thomas is judged more leniently because his drug use, as reported by the press, was less a matter of habit and further in the past.

But scandal reporting does tend to distort politics. If the latest and most low down gets the biggest play, it’s impossible for any news organization to provide context for the work of reporters who are out there digging around in General Accounting Office and inspector general reports or analyzing program costs for a new weapons system. If our headlines are constant banners of sleaze, how can the public be expected to grasp the magnitude of a decade-long blunder costing hundreds of billions of dollars? The boy has cried wolf too often.

But critics err in seeing scandal coverage as the source of every weakness in contemporary journalism, and positing some past golden age of journalism in which gross misprision and policy blundering were easily and often exposed by reporters. Which reporters were systematically exposing the political cynicism that lay behind the Truman administration’s loyalty program? Where was the outcry in the fifties, when U.S. soldiers were exposed to atomic tests in the Nevada desert? The same mourned-for respectability and forbearance that turned a blind eye to successive presidents’ philandering also, all too often, deferentially overlooked affairs in which the public had an even more obvious stake.

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From “Is It Any of Your Business?” September 1991. Marjorie Williams died in 2005. Her essays and profiles have been posthumously collected in The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate and Reputation: Portraits in Power.

 
 
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