In a fascinating piece in this week’s New York Times Magazine, Yale professor Beverly Gage uncovers the uncensored version of a letter sent by the FBI’s William Sullivan to Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964. In an attempt to discredit the civil-rights leader and drive him from power—and perhaps even to suicide—Sullivan, one of Director J. Edgar Hoover’s deputies, warned King in graphic terms that his extramarital affairs were public knowledge.
The letter—in which King is described as an “evil, abnormal beast” who cavorts with “filthy dirty evil companions”—is a reminder of an era when the FBI went to extreme lengths to protect what it considered to be the nation’s best interests. When the white civil-rights activist Viola Liuzzo was murdered outside Selma, Alabama, in 1965 by a group of Klansmen that included an FBI informant, Hoover’s bureau spread false rumors that Liuzzo was a heroin addict who had traveled to the South to have sex with black men. Hoover’s name, incidentally, still adorns the FBI building in Washington today.
But Gage’s story on the letter, and its analysis of the FBI’s smear campaign against King, also reopens a debate about how much a public leader’s personal and sexual conduct should matter, and what the media’s role in reporting it should be:
Today it is almost impossible to imagine the press refusing a juicy story. To a scandal-hungry media, the bedroom practices of our public officials and moral leaders are usually fair game. And a sex scandal is often—though not always—a cheap one-way ticket out of public life. Faced with today’s political environment, perhaps King would have made different decisions in his personal affairs. Perhaps, though, he never would have had the chance to emerge as the public leader he ultimately became.
Luckily, in 1964 the media were far more cautious.
Gage notes that America was “lucky” the press didn’t run with the story of King’s infidelity, since his contributions to justice in this country outweigh any personal moral failings.
The line between matters personal and political also became a topic for debate last month with the publication of Matt Bai’s book, All The Truth Is Out: How Politics Went Tabloid. In this excerpt, Bai examined how Gary Hart, the charismatic (and married) frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988 was brought down by a report in the Miami Herald documenting his relationship with a former model. Bai’s critique of the press is complex, but these lines best sum it up:
If Nixon’s resignation created the character culture in American politics, then Hart’s undoing marked the moment when political reporters ceased to care about almost anything else. By the 1990s, the cardinal objective of all political journalism had shifted from a focus on agendas to a focus on narrow notions of character, from illuminating worldviews to exposing falsehoods. If post-Hart political journalism had a motto, it would be: “We know you’re a fraud somehow. Our job is to prove it.”
Former Herald reporter and editor Tom Fiedler defended his 1988 reporting in Politico, writing that he struggles to understand what Bai means when he bemoans modern journalists who pick apart politicians’ falsehoods, “no matter how inconsequential those lies might turn out to be.” Acknowledging the unreported sexual adventures of FDR, JFK, and LBJ, Bai offered a snarky rebuttal:
I guess we’d need someone of higher moral standing to lead us through the Depression and World War II, or to handle Khrushchev on the eve of nuclear annihilation, or to cobble together the Great Society. I guess we’d all have been better off navigating the 20th century with 25 terms of the Carter administration.
Bai’s employs reductio ad absurdum here, yet as he acknowledges in the next paragraph, this is a reductive representation of Fiedler’s assertion that candidates’ personal lives matter. This whole argument over Hart is hopelessly entangled with the particulars of his downfall and the Herald’s methods in 1988: The back-and-forth with Fiedler is worth reading in full. In any case, it’s true that Franklin Roosevelt was a strong, effective leader for America in depression and wartime, regardless of his flaws. The logic is similar to Gage’s assessment that we’re lucky King’s affairs weren’t exposed during his lifetime.
Where Bai, Fiedler, and Gage seem to agree is that sexual impropriety shouldn’t outweigh larger policy considerations in voters’ minds. And it doesn’t always. Bill Clinton and Mark Sanford’s political careers survived sex scandals. Eliot Spitzer’s and Anthony Weiner’s did not. There are different gradations of misconduct, different levels of honesty and contrition in response to accusations. None of those scandals revealed a lack of political knowledge or policy expertise, but they damaged public trust in men who make decisions on matters of state.
Is there an argument that stories about the personal lives of unfaithful public figures should have been reported? Infidelity has historically been treated differently, depending on the time and place. The mores of 1960s America meant that remarrying could have derailed Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential campaign, but casual adultery committed by men in power during that time was often swept under the rug. Last year in France, President Francois Hollande’s mistress won damages from Closer magazine—which published photos of the president leaving her apartment following a purported romantic encounter—after the court ruled that the magazine had violated her privacy.
It’s possible that the press corps of the '60s could have framed these stories in a way that would have prioritized skilled governance over a strong marriage. More likely, the stories would have been attack fodder for less qualified candidates. The stakes, as Bai says, were very high.
One major reason reporters follow this stuff today is the public wants them to. As Fielder notes, a 2013 Rasmussen Reports survey found that 81 percent of likely voters take personal behavior into account. A 2007 Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that 55 percent of people say honesty and integrity are the most important qualities in a candidate, compared to the one-third who care more about policy issues. We don’t just put presidents on pedestals; we carve them into mountains.
On the other hand, in 1998, shortly after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, a majority of respondents told Gallup they were unconcerned with such matters.
When Americans are asked what they need to know to evaluate a presidential candidate, 65% say they do not need to know whether the candidate has had extramarital affairs and 72% say they do not need to know if the candidate has had a child out of wedlock.
This in a country where 92 percent of people think extramarital affairs are “morally wrong.”
Caught in a bind between deciding which secrets or what hypocrisy the public deserves to know about, and exposing the truth regardless of its impact, reporters face difficult questions. How different might the history of civil rights in America be if the press had reported on MLK’s affairs? Thankfully, no one knows the answer.