It’s generally bad form to speak ill of the dead, but let us make an exception for Bill Young, the powerful Florida congressman who died in October. Turns out, his family-values public image was wildly out of sync with his private behavior – and, for decades, the local press let him get away with it.
All of which buttresses the argument for journalistic scrutiny of politicians’ private lives.
If you haven’t read up on “Bill Young, family man,” check out this fascinating weekend piece from the Tampa Bay Times. Turns out that, at age 51, the celebrated House moralist (winner of the Family and Freedom Award from the ’80s religious conservative lobby group Christian Voice) knocked up his 26-year-old secretary, who gave birth while Young was still married to Marian, his wife of 34 years.
After Young ‘fessed up – this was in 1984 – he wanted to have it both ways. He wanted to stay married (he and Marian had three kids), but still be free to pursue the affair (and the new kid). But Marian said no to that libertine arrangement, and she requested a divorce. A year later, in 1985, she got her wish. She received $2000 a month in hush money; the deal was, she couldn’t publicly breathe a word about the affair or the baby. Her attorney told her, “If all this comes out, the congressman may be in jeopardy of losing his seat.” True that, because his conservative Gulf Coast constituents loved his family-values voting record.
Eight days after the divorce was finalized, Young quietly married his secretary. He then severed virtually all contact with Marian and his three kids. As Marian told the newspaper, “The kids tried to keep in touch with him. They would call, but they would get no calls back.” He did show up at son Terry’s house in 1986, to drop off Christmas presents for his son and grandchildren, but the newspaper reports that “Young never tried to contact him or the grandchildren again.” (Only now are Marian and her kids spilling the beans, because Young’s death has freed them to talk.)
Granted, many people have messy personal lives (we’re only human; life can be complicated), and generally that messiness is nobody else’s business. But a politician’s whitewashing of his first family – they were purged from his official biography; they were even omitted from the photo montage at his autumn memorial service – was clearly the voters’ business. They had a right to know the full details, in order to best judge the gap between the public and private man.
The local press should have informed the voters of Young’s behavior back in the ’80s, but that didn’t happen. Which brings us to the key passage in the Tampa Bay Times story:
At that time, politicians enjoyed a greater degree of privacy than they do today – including when they had extramarital affairs. It was well known, for instance, that President John F. Kennedy had numerous mistresses while the press looked the other way. There were some famous exceptions – usually when the politician was caught red-handed or the dalliance was tied to an unavoidable news event.
In Young’s case, the news of the affair and out-of-wedlock child never emerged publicly…Other journalists knew about the affair and the birth, but believed such issues fell outside the public’s right to know. “I was on the editorial board in 1984, not covering Young per se, but I remember that we were quite aware of what was going on and that it was scarcely if at all alluded to in print,” said former (Tampa Bay) journalist Martin Dyckman. “Those of us at the (paper) weren’t comfortable exploiting a politician’s private life so long as it didn’t cross with his work.”
But Young’s private behavior did cross with his work. His image as a family-values moralist was an integral part of his work; it helped get him re-elected 20 times.
He began to craft that image in the Florida State Senate, where he participated in an investigation entitled “Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida,” and denounced gay behavior as “very repulsive.” He nurtured the image in Washington, repeatedly getting high scores from the right-wing Family Research Council. He collected his aforementioned Christian Voice Award one year after he bought his first wife’s silence. A few years ago he co-sponsored a House resolution declaring that “it is Religion and Morality alone which establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.” Ten years ago (this is my favorite), he voted for a bill to federally fund programs “that promote healthy marriages and responsible fatherhood.”
This is precisely why a politician’s problematic personal life should be considered fair game. It’s not a question of “exploiting” that life, as Martin Dyckman suggests. It’s about reporting information that voters deserve to know, so that they won’t be snowed by a political con job. Indeed, for too long back in 2007, Democratic voters were kept in the dark about John Edwards’ extramarital behavior (which clashed with his self-advertised family image), because the mainstream press shied away from the reportage.
The Bill Young saga – better late than never – is fresh evidence that the personal is political.Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1