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DEBRA HALE-SHELTON: Reporting on politicians' sex escapades

by Debra Hale-Shelton | December 29, 2019 at 2:02 a.m.

I was thinking about the most fun stories I've ever covered or read from afar--not necessarily the biggest, but the ones that still make me smile or laugh even when I probably shouldn't.

Politicians' sex scandals immediately surfaced since I've reported long enough to remember names like Monica Lewinsky, Marla Maples and Fanne Foxe. Besides, It's apparently much easier for Americans to remember and cast votes based on lurid sexual details of politicians' private lives than to remember how they stood on issues such as health care and wars.

Let's start in 1974--before CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and Twitter existed.

Consider Fanne Foxe, a burlesque performer or, in her case, a stripper whose real name was Annabel Battistella. She became best known, though, as The Argentine Firecracker after she and one bespectacled older congressman from Arkansas became front-page news.

Arkansas' Wilbur Mills, then chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, happened to know Foxe--how so and to what extent a matter of substantial dispute at the time. He cited a friendship that he, the Battistellas and his wife Polly had. The problem was that Polly wasn't with him the night police stopped Mills' speeding car and one of his passengers, Foxe, jumped out and dived into Washington's Tidal Basin. As for Mills, he exited the car with broken glasses and a scratched face.

Mills later said Polly wasn't along for the ride because she had a broken foot.

That's where I came in.

I was a young reporter for The Associated Press in Little Rock, by no means the one covering the worst of the scandal. But when Mills and his wife returned to Arkansas shortly thereafter, you'd better believe I was awaiting them at the Little Rock airport and looking for Polly's cast. She was, indeed, wearing one--a fact I reported, though I had no idea when it had become attached to her foot.

Mills, a Democrat, won re-election that November against a little-known Republican challenger. But things worsened after he later showed up on stage at a burlesque club where Foxe kissed him on the cheek and he kissed his political career goodbye. He would go on to admit to a drinking problem and give up his House committee chairmanship. He did not seek another term in office and became an advocate for Alcoholics Anonymous.

If only the Tidal Basin scandal had happened now, Mills might have resolved it simply by lashing out at his critics on Twitter and reviving his previous bid for the presidency. Best of all, he could have done so with the staunch support of many evangelicals.

By the 1990s, I was working at the AP in Chicago, Democrat Bill Clinton was president and Republican Newt Gingrich was House speaker.

My editor had sent me to Marshall Field's State Street store to cover Gingrich, who was expected to take questions from the news media. Gingrich had been among the more vocal politicians in criticizing Clinton's extramarital behavior.

Just before Gingrich arrived in Chicago, Vanity Fair published an article about some of Gingrich's own sexual proclivities. In true bipartisan form, they had distinct similarities to Clinton's.

For unknown reasons, most of the reporters that day seemed shy about asking Gingrich tough questions. Maybe it was a busy news day and rookies were dispatched there; I don't know. I kept waiting for someone to ask Gingrich about the article--whether he admitted or denied its contents in light of his attacks on Clinton.

Finally, I realized no one else was going to ask, so I did with a typically apologetic approach, "I'm sorry to have to ask this question, but ..." when Gingrich cut me off.

"No, no," he said. He then added something along the line of "Then don't ask it," and I responded by saying I had to ask it.

Gingrich promptly walked out on all of the reporters, only to return momentarily to attack what he called sensational journalism. I wrote about his walkout in an article that otherwise was not memorable.

By then, of course, Clinton had survived and been elected president after Gennifer (yes, spelled with a G) Flowers went public about a long affair with him. Over time, more allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment would emerge against Clinton.

Still, it was Clinton's wife Hillary whom thrice-married Donald Trump sought to embarrass before a presidential debate in 2016 by bringing some of Bill Clinton's accusers together at a news conference. It's apparently OK to blame the woman for the man's misdeeds, which Trump likely has done in his own marriages.

Because of space, I won't belabor the sex scandals of and allegations against President Trump other than to mention a few of the names at play: stripper Stormy Daniels; Marla Maples, his second wife and mother of his younger daughter; Melania Trump, his third and current wife and mother of his youngest son; columnist E. Jean Carroll.

Like Bill Clinton, Trump has denied some accusations, such as harassment. Also like Clinton, Trump even survived a pre-election sex scandal--the infamous Access Hollywood tape. In it, Trump brags of his sexual conquests and talks of grabbing a woman's private parts. Unlike either Clinton, Trump went on to be elected with evangelical support and largely still has it.

And to think that in 1976 a Bible-teaching Southern Democrat who went on to become president even made headlines for telling Playboy magazine that he had "looked on a lot of women with lust" and had "committed adultery in my heart many times."

His name was Jimmy Carter.

Debra Hale-Shelton can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @nottalking.

Editorial on 12/29/2019


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