The 72-year-old Floridian who brought the story of Henry Hyde’s extramarital affair to the online magazine Salon is a lifelong liberal who was a delegate for Henry Wallace in 1948, calls himself a card-carrying member of the ACLU, and denounces the current Republican-dominated Congress as “the most reactionary of my lifetime.”
But the story of Norm Sommer’s quest to bring Hyde’s affair to light makes it plain why Republican claims that the White House planted the Hyde story are a canard. Indeed, Sommer encountered months of nearly unanimous rejection from the mainstream media, just as Salon has weathered nearly unanimous condemnation of its decision to print the Hyde piece–all while the media continue to hyperventilate over Clinton’s sexcapades.
Sommer told me his involvement in the Hyde story began by chance some seven years ago, when his friend and tennis partner Fred Snodgrass told him that Hyde had carried on a lengthy affair with his wife. Then when the Monica Lewinsky story broke in January, Sommer says he asked Snodgrass for “authorization” to tell his story, and began what can only be called a personal crusade to get the story reported.
Sommer’s scorn for the Republican Congress is palpable, and he calls Hyde a “hypocrite of the highest order. This icon of moral rectitude broke up my friend’s family. So much for his ‘family values.’ ”
In January, Sommer began an exceptionally persistent, and exceptionally media-savvy, effort to expose Hyde. He says he eventually spent more than $2000 calling and writing some 57 media outlets. He tried The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, CBS, CNN, NPR, and The New Yorker, among others. But few of these truth-seekers returned his calls, despite the fact that the self-described “news junkie” often directed his missives to specific political reporters.
This weekend, Boston Globe columnist David Nyhan penned an account of how he was contacted by Sommer: “Three days after Clinton testified for the grand jury… I sat in as a guest host of C-Span’s morning call-in show. That same day, a viewer in Florida wrote to me: ‘I just caught you on C-Span, and…’ ” The viewer was Sommer. At the bottom of his letter, he had handwritten, “If interested, maybe your Chris Black can do the exposé, and you can do the column.” Black, the Globe‘s national political correspondent, laughingly refers to Sommer as “the assignment editor.”
Unlike virtually all of Sommer’s targets, Black did pursue the story, and “reported it out” till she was convinced of its truth. But, she says, deciding whether to run the story “was not my call.” So she notified her editors, and awaited “their verdict.” It was no.
Globe executive editor Helen Donovan says it was an easy call: the long-ago affair was just not relevant, she says, and “if we started down that road, we would end up undertaking endless investigations.” Indeed, editors and writers across the mainstream media world exhibited a remarkable unanimity about the Hyde story. Sommer contacted Tom Fiedler, political editor of the Miami Herald, in April, but Fiedler and his Herald colleagues decided that publishing the piece would be “gratuitous.”
The consensus extended to the progressive press. The Nation‘s David Corn was actually the first to seriously investigate the story, after Sommer reached Nation publisher Victor Navasky in June. Corn says he verified the affair in August. But the Nation also took a pass. Says Navasky, “We’re not going to devote our resources to investigating the private lives of public figures. We’ve been highly critical of others who do so, going all the way back to the McCarthy era. It’s wrong to play that game–and counterproductive.”
Even Salon‘s Washington bureau chief, Jonathan Broder, rejected the story. Broder told the National Journal, “I was very much against running the story. There were no public issues involved. . . . She wasn’t on Hyde’s payroll. She hadn’t had a news conference announcing an affair with him… and it was 30 years old.”
But the Globe‘s Black offered a different rationale: “There is an issue of hypocrisy here. I covered Hyde in the ’70s, and he certainly wrapped himself in the mantle of moral rectitude; on the other hand, he’s been pretty circumspect about Clinton.” Corn, Fiedler, and others echo Black, allowing that hypocrisy might have justified the decision to print, but finding Hyde an equivocal case.
Sommer says he became so frustrated with the mainstream media that he brought the story to the Star–and offered it up for $30,000. The tabloidbit, but they insisted on interviewing Hyde’s old girlfriend, and Sommer didn’t think she was willing. Besides, he had found another taker: Salon editor David Talbot.
Last week, apoplectic Republicans blamed the White House–specifically aide Sidney Blumenthal–for planting the Hyde story. House majority whip Tom DeLay called for an FBI investigation. Conservative mouthpieces like the New York Post‘s Deborah Orin made much of the fact that George Will and William Kristol had claimed Blumenthal was peddling the Hyde story on the September 6 edition of ABC News’s This Week, 10 days before the Salon story ran.
This picture of Blumenthal as a dirt merchant does not strike many as unlikely. Last March, Doug Ireland reported in the Nation that Blumenthal had spread rumors that aides to Ken Starr were gay. Still, it’s evident that, thanks to Sommer, the Hyde story was out there for months before Blumenthal was fingered.
David Talbot spent much of last week blasting Republicans for “crying and whining now that their own scorched-earth strategy–which began with Troopergate–has been turned on them.” He is equally unimpressed by “elite media”: “They had a script–to build the august Henry Hyde into a worthy judge of the miscreant Clinton. It was very inconvenient for Salon to come along and point out they had left out a scene: the one that showed Hyde was human, and flawed too. So they went ballistic on us.”
Talbot maintains that the rationale for publication is simple: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Little Salon dared to try to level the playing field.” As for any concern that Salon‘s move furthered what Corn calls the “Starrification” of political life, Talbot adopts what he calls a “Merry Prankster” attitude: “Has the country gone totally mad? Great, we’ll make it even madder!”
Still, while there may be a measure of sweet justice in Hyde’s public undressing, Salon‘s rationale–“ugly times call for ugly tactics”–is truly ugly. Worse, the anti-Salonbacklash deflected press attention from other, relevant information about Hyde. The obsession with his affair has encouraged the idea that save for one, er, midlife indiscretion, the congressman has been a paragon of virtue.
In none of the many stories about Hyde last week, for example, would one come across an account of Hyde’s involvement in a failed savings and loan that cost Illinois taxpayers $68 million. Hyde was one of the directors of the bank, which eventually settled a federal gross-negligence lawsuit with a modest payout–though Hyde refused to pay any of the settlement. He reaped $115,000 in campaign contributions from banks in the 1980s, while consistently backing the deregulation of S&Ls.
To be fair, Hyde has shown signs of open-mindedness in the past. He once said, “I have a problem with an institution such as the independent counsel that has no real accountability, that goes on and on like Tennyson’s brook, without end and with an open-ended checkbook.” Of course, he was defending Oliver North at the time.
Jilted by the Fonz
In last Thursday’s New York Times, Bob Herbert wrote a mordant column about Alfonse D’Amato that contained these lines: “You want campaign finance reform? Not from Al D’Amato, you don’t. There were suggestions recently that with a tough election coming up he might back off of his consistent opposition to reform and support the McCain-Feingold bill, which would have modestly improved Federal campaign finance laws.
“Somebody was dreaming. Last Thursday D’Amato voted against the bill.”
Somebody may have been dreaming a few doors down from Herbert’s office, for just a few weeks ago the Times ran an editorial entitled “Senator D’Amato’s Choice,” which advanced the idea that “a less likely supporter of campaign finance reform might be hard to imagine. But today we challenge that assumption. Mr. D’Amato is a flexible man in a tough re-election fight who has spent years in the belly of the fundraising beast… This is a senator for whom elections tend to focus the mind… We believe his mind can be focused on campaign finance reform as well.”
Herbert says he did not have the editorial in mind when he wrote his column. And Steven Weisman, who wrote the editorial, chuckled while declaiming any “coordination with Bob.” As for the notion that the Times was snookered by the Fonz, Weisman says, “some very well-placed Republicans” suggested to the paper that a D’Amato shift was possible, and the senator had recently made some comments, recorded in Newsday, suggesting his openness to limiting soft money. “The editorial wasn’t just wishful thinking,” says Weisman, “though I don’t mind us appearing naive.”
If not naïveté, the Times has exhibited a kind of special regard for D’Amato, persisting in seeing in him possibilities that few others do. As far back as March 1997, a Times editorial suggested hopefully that D’Amato’s daunting reelection prospects gave him “a good reason to join a clean-politics movement in his own party.” In October the edit board found encouragement in some D’Amato mumblings about favoring a ban on unlimited donations, and again envisioned the senator “enhancing his standing” by supporting reform. Finally, a couple weeks before their latest effort to reach Al, the Times stated confidently that D’Amato “cannot afford to be seen as beholden to the status quo.”