The ‘full public colonoscopy’ phase

In his piece for the new print edition of the magazine, the Washington Monthly editor-in-chief, Paul Glastris, notes what happens in a presidential campaign right about now. “The 2012 presidential race is entering what might be called the ‘full public colonoscopy’ phase, when the press really begins digging into every nook and cranny of the leading candidates’ public and private lives looking for scandal material,” Glastris wrote.

He wrote this well before the new revelations about Herman Cain, an inexperienced politician who appears to be struggling badly with this level of scrutiny. Rick Perry hasn’t fared especially well, either.

But the Republican field can take some solace in the fact that they’re not facing Bill Clinton-style treatment. From Glastris’ piece:

[I]n the annals of primary campaign feeding frenzies, nothing compares to 1992. That year began with allegations about Bill Clinton’s relationship with the nightclub singer Gennifer Flowers. Then came revelations about his efforts to avoid the draft. By spring, hordes of reporters were camped out in Little Rock, chasing down any and every hint of potential impropriety.

Eventually, investigative reporter Jeff Gerth managed to publish a front-page New York Times piece on a baseless Whitewater story, which captured the media’s attention, despite lacking evidence of wrongdoing.

A decade and a half later, Gerth would admit that the story contained errors, which he blamed on his editors. Readers at the time, however, didn’t know that, and because the piece ran on the front page of the prestigious New York Times, nearly everyone in the journalistic and political world presumed here had to be something to it.

What Gerth got wrong set the stage for years of senseless investigations…. We’ve really never seen anything like this, before or since. Normally, scandals dug up during the course of a campaign season stay in the campaign season — the unwritten rule being that since the voters, knowing the candidate’s flaws, have spoken, re-litigating the scandal is undemocratic. But with Clinton, a campaign scandal — and a profoundly phony one at that — was allowed to disrupt nearly two terms of a presidency.

Cain supporters are crying foul over a report that turns out to be accurate, but for those of us who remember the 1990s, it’s hard to feel sympathetic.