The character question hangs over Rep. Gary Condit. But another question hangs over the rest of the nation: When does private behavior appropriately become a public issue?

Press coverage is far more personal than it used to be. And politicians' sexual affairs, for example, are much more likely to wind up in the news.

"In the old days, these sorts of offenses weren't covered at all," professor Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia observed. "It was just considered inappropriate. Today, it's considered hyper-appropriate. It builds ratings, and people are interested in it."

Ironically, all the coverage of character flaws could make it easier for a flawed character to survive in elective office. Sabato, co-author of Peepshow: Media and Politics in an Age of Scandal (Rowman & Littlefield), added: "People today are much more inclined to forgive and forget than they were 50 years ago. If John F. Kennedy's affairs had become public during his presidency, his presidency would have been over instantaneously."

Are there rules about who survives politically? Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne answered this way: "There are no rules. And they are loosely interpreted." Sabato responded: "Rules? Boy, I can't think of any rules. Every rule I can think of is contradicted by another circumstance or past behavior by a politician."

Well, let's see. Here's one guideline. Call it "the Oprah rule." Come clean right from the start, and all will be forgiven. Eventually.

President Reagan followed that rule in the Iran-Contra affair, and he survived. On the day that the scandal broke, Reagan revealed that he had sold arms to Iran. "My fellow Americans, there's an old saying that nothing spreads so quickly as a rumor," he told the nation on November 13, 1986. "So I thought it was time to speak with you directly, to tell you firsthand about our dealings with Iran." Reagan took his lumps-a 30-point drop in the polls. For months after that, however, new revelations had little impact on him. Reagan followed the cardinal rule of damage control: Let the worst information out first.

President Nixon did not come clean about Watergate. Presidential candidate Gary Hart did not come clean about his personal life. Both violated the rule. Neither survived. "In principle, honesty is the best policy," Dionne observed, adding: "In practice, it's not clear that's always true."

Take the case of President Clinton. He lied. ("I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.") He didn't come clean until he was forced to. Yet he survived.

But that was all about sex. When it's all about sex, people make allowances, don't they? They did for Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., precisely because he is gay. A straight politician caught with a sex-for-money operation being run—without his knowledge—out of his house would never have survived. But no allowances were made for then-Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore. That's because Packwood's case was not just about sex. It was about sexual harassment, a far more serious matter. Then again, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas did survive charges of sexual harassment during his nomination hearings.

Here's another rule: Once you're in office, people tend to give you the benefit of the doubt. It took the public more than a year to turn against Nixon over Watergate. But if the scandal breaks before you're elected, it's tough to survive. That's why Bill Clinton survived and Gary Hart didn't.

On the other hand, the first thing many people learned about Clinton during the 1992 campaign was that he had had an extramarital relationship with Gennifer Flowers. Clinton survived that revelation by going on television—with his wife—to confess. See Rule No. 1.

It's also tough to survive if you appear to be a hypocrite. Look at what happened to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., after they sat in judgment of Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. But Jesse Jackson looked like a hypocrite in 1984, when he got caught making an antisemitic remark. Jackson confessed and apologized. Jackson looked like a hypocrite again last year when he—the moral counselor to Clinton—was revealed to have fathered a child out of wedlock. Once again, Jackson confessed and apologized.

What heightens the seriousness of the Condit matter is that it's not just about sex. It's about a missing woman, Chandra Levy. But the Chappaquiddick incident in 1969 was about a woman who drowned in the back of Sen. Edward Kennedy's car. How did Kennedy, D-Mass., survive that?

Kennedy assumed responsibility: "I regard as indefensible the fact that I did not report the accident to the police immediately." He also drew attention to other tragedies that he and his family had endured. He wondered "whether some awful curse did hang over all the Kennedys."

Voters made allowances for Kennedy. They are not making allowances for Condit, however. The problem isn't the California Democrat's private behavior. It's his priorities. As Dionne put it, "It appeared to the public that he was more interested in keeping his affair private than in finding this young woman."

The bottom line is: Character does matter. But it matters in context. The public acts like a jury. It doesn't just consider the law. It considers the context of every case.

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