How true the story may be that the media of his day knew all about JFK’s philandering but chose not to report it, I have my doubts, but insofar as it is true, it suggests that there was once a sense of honor among journalists, as there is also said to be among thieves. To some extent, of course, this was just a function of the overwhelmingly masculine make-up of the press corps at the time. In the war of the sexes, both men and women tend to keep each other’s secrets. But men in groups are also breeding grounds for localized honor cultures in which the presumption of honorable behavior on the part of their members is violated only in the most extreme and even violent circumstances. As more women were admitted to the group, the honor culture of the media was diluted and ultimately disappeared. I have some sympathy for the view that this is a good thing — at least insofar as I think female journalists are a good thing — though I don’t quite share it. I also don’t believe that the national interest would have been served by a press corps in 1961-63 which felt itself at liberty to give JFK the same treatment it was later to give Bill Clinton in 1998-99.
Yet during those years, it seemed for a brief moment that some of the more thoughtful of the new thinkers — the philosopher Thomas Nagel for one — began to see the problem with the alternative to honor, which turned out to be allowing our public discourse to become choked with the stuff of gossip and innuendo. In leaping to the defense of President Clinton in the Times Literary Supplement, of which I was then American editor, Professor Nagel wrote that what he regarded as the persecution of the President by Kenneth Starr and the House Republicans had made him think again about his earlier support for the House Democrats who, seven years before, had attempted to use gossip and innuendo in order to keep Justice Clarence Thomas off the Supreme Court. It was only a sentence in a much longer piece — the editor later told me that a sub-editor had cut it for space and he had only re-inserted it at the last minute — but it was the act of an honest man.
Alas, his moment of truth did not herald a new dawn of honor and civility. What President Clinton with some justification called “the politics of personal destruction” has made a comeback — not only in the attempt to demonize Tea Party supporters as racists and conservative Republicans as kooks and “extremists” and witches and Satanists and traitors and Nazis but even where there is no electoral advantage to be had from it — even, once again, in the case of Clarence Thomas, now comfortably ensconced on the Supreme Court for life. The Washington Post has taken the occasion of an ill-judged demand for an apology from Justice Thomas’s wife to Anita Hill to devote a Style Section front to a new calumniator of him, said to be a former girlfriend named Lillian McEwan, who now, nearly 20 years later, has decided to break a long silence by asserting that Miss Hill’s long-ago charges “rang familiar” to her. Oh, and you’ll never guess: by an amazing coincidence she happens to have “written a memoir, which she is now shopping to publishers.”
According to Michael A. Fletcher of the Post, when she heard of Mrs Thomas’s demand for an apology (and Miss Hill’s refusal of it) Ms McEwan “changed her mind and decided to talk about her relationship with Thomas” — which suggests that her “memoir” must have been written in record time. “‘I have nothing to be afraid of,’ she said, adding that she hopes the attention stokes interest in her manuscript.” I’ll just bet she does. It’s not often that the Post gives such free publicity to a book, let alone a book which has yet to find a publisher, but then we also learn that she is a Democrat and has been “increasingly irritated with Thomas’s conservative jurisprudence and his penchant for casting himself as a victim in the Hill controversy” — so I suppose she has that in common with the Post’s shamelessly partisan editors.
For Justice Thomas is the victim, and irrespective of any truth or lack of it in Miss Hill’s allegations. He is the victim once again, as he was in 1991, of a dishonorable attempt by the media in alliance with the most unscrupulously partisan Democrats to discredit a man and destroy his career for their own political ends with a supposed scandal made up of nothing but unsubstantiated allegations and gossip. One difference between now and 1991, however, is that today the media hardly even bother to disguise their partisan agenda, as we have lately seen again in the firing of Juan Williams by NPR.