Suzanne Fields

Where is Jane Wyman now that we need a good example? After she and Ronald Reagan were divorced in the '40s, and he became more politician than movie star, she never spoke about their marriage or their years together. That was their business, not ours, and she treated it so.

But that was a long time ago. Today we think we're entitled to know every naughty fact about a candidate's marriage and nocturnal adventures. We say we need to know all that to read character, for insights into the nature and temperament of everyone who wants to be the president of the United States. That may be true, but it may be irrelevant, and most of the time all we really want is titillation.

Does anyone think Franklin D. Roosevelt would have been a better wartime leader if he hadn't cheated on Eleanor? He might not have given the first lady so much responsibility if he had wanted to keep her closer to home. A scandal would have distracted him from the business of war, and that certainly wasn't in the public interest.

This was not necessarily true of John F. Kennedy. He was defiantly careless in his extra-marital liaisons. Judith Exner, one of his favorite mistresses, was simultaneously sharing the bed of a Mafia don, and pillow talk is always fraught with risk of blackmail. The result could have been devastating for all of us. If Jack Kennedy had lived to serve out his term, he might have been impeached.

When Bill and Hillary Clinton appeared on "60 Minutes" to talk about their marriage early in the '94 campaign, they more than hinted that Bill had been busy in the boudoirs of Arkansas, but voters gave him a pass. His greater offense lay in the future when he lied under oath (the crime that may send Scooter Libby to prison) about his liaisons with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office pantry. The perjury, not the liaison, sordid as it was, is what got him impeached.

How Hillary handled the episode tells us something about judgment, too. She blamed a fanciful "vast right-wing conspiracy" for "smearing" her husband with a story that turned out to be true. She evokes "the vast right-wing conspiracy" in speeches again today, which mostly reminds everyone of the Clintons' gift for cynicism.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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