Liberals twist privacy arguments

Posted: May 16, 2003 12:00 AM

I know the story about Bill Bennett's gambling is fading -and rightly so -from the public radar. Meanwhile, another story is getting bigger on the screen. John F. Kennedy had an affair with a 19-year-old intern while president of the United States. The two stories may seem to have very little in common, but they do.

In a sense, they tell the strange story of liberalism zig-zagging on the issue of privacy. Let's start at the end of the story and work backward. In much of the criticism of Bennett, liberals and libertarians have referred to what they call "the Bennett rules." Joshua Marshall, who writes a sort of in-house tip sheet for professional liberals (, says, "For my part, I'd say leave everyone's (private) issues to them and theirs. ... But those aren't the Bill Bennett rules, are they? Now he wants them to be. Too bad."

My friend Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic, disagrees with Marshall. If you believe the right to privacy is a rule, it shouldn't matter what Bennett believes or even if he is a hypocrite. Beinart asks, "Isn't the definition of a rule something that applies universally, whether the person you're applying it to believes in it or not? We don't justify racial discrimination against bigots. To allow Bennett to determine the standards by which he is judged affords him an authority he doesn't deserve."

I agree with Beinart on that. But where he, Marshall and the wolf-pack of gleeful liberals feeding on Bennett -largely as payback for Clinton's impeachment -are wrong is when they say these were "Bennett's rules." Bennett argues that character matters -and it does -but he's never been a huge advocate for invading the privacy of others. No, the idea that the private lives of politicians and public figures are fair game to prying journalists and activists is a creation of the left.

JFK hugely benefited from the press's belief in a zone of privacy. Decades later we've found out what many reporters either knew or could have discovered if they had wanted to: Kennedy had a lot of problems. He was hopped up on an entire pharmacopoeia of medication. Medical files recently released by the Kennedy family to Robert Dallek, author of a new book on Kennedy, An Unfinished Life, reveal that Kennedy took copious painkillers, anti-anxiety drugs, stimulants, sleeping pills, as well as hormones and steroids.

The press's complicity in covering up or simply ignoring this angle is exceeded only by its nonchalance toward Kennedy's dalliances with the ladies. When a New York Times correspondent spotted a famous actress visiting the president at the Carlyle Hotel in 1963, the editor dismissed it. "No story there," he declared.

Some editor probably said the same thing when reports that Kennedy dallied with a 19-year-old intern came across his desk.

This very wide zone of privacy can be explained in part by the elitist conservatism of the media at the time. And part of it can be explained by the general awe the overwhelmingly liberal establishment held for Kennedy and other liberal presidents.

But the reason the zone eroded can be laid primarily at the feet of the left, particularly the feminist left. Senators John Tower, Robert Packwood and even Gary Hart, as well as Judges Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas and Douglas Ginsburg, all had their private lives spilled out for public view, some deservedly, others not.

Leading the charge in most, if not all, of the cases were feminists and liberal activists who insisted that "the personal is political." The insistence that conservatives "just don't get it" when it comes such issues as sexual harassment and abortion were used as smokescreens to cover prying into what movies Judge Bork rented and what Packwood wrote in his diary.

But when conservatives joined the game -sometimes to everyone's detriment -liberals balked. Suddenly, when Bill Clinton violated all of the rules established by feminists in the wake of the Thomas hearings, the right to privacy suddenly became sacrosanct. Gloria Steinem was writing op-eds in the Times about how employers should be allowed to make passes at their employees, so long as it didn't get out of hand.

When President Clinton asked his Cabinet to voice any criticisms they might have had about his behavior with Monica Lewinsky, Donna Shalala, Clinton's Health and Human Services secretary and a prominent feminist, told him she was disappointed with his lack of "moral leadership."

Clinton, according to The Washington Post and other outlets, came down on her like a ton of bricks. According to her logic, he said, Richard Nixon should have beaten JFK in 1960. And with that, nobody voiced any more criticism. In other words, the 40 years of "progress" on sexual harassment laws and the like -driven by liberals -wasn't really progress at all.

And so here we are. Liberals have rediscovered privacy, blamed their excesses on "Bennett's rules" and charged Bennett with hypocrisy for defying standards he never set in the first place. Only in America.

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