Washington — When the Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz headlined a column the other day “Tribune‘s Bob Greene Resigns After Sex Inquiry,” you can be sure my attention was fetched. Greene is a columnist for the newspaper I grew up with while a boy in Chicago. The topics he covers have usually been corny, his prose lachrymose. Chicago is a tough town. To this native Chicagoan Greene’s popularity is a testimonial to the infinite possibilities of the improbable. He wrote in the same city and same paper as the bare-knuckled Mike Royko.
So why did he resign after a sex inquiry? Was he conducting the inquiry? Did he find the sex too disgusting to bear, or, more characteristically, too sad? No, it turns out that a, shall we say, “whistle blower” notified editors at the Trib that Greene had had a liaison with a young, albeit of age, woman, during the marriage he so often blubbers about. Unfortunately the girl — as yet unnamed — was not a Trib intern, so Greene does not have the “this-is-a-private matter” dispensation recently employed so successfully by the Clintons. Remaining details of his resignation are murky, for neither he nor the Trib has been very forthcoming. One detail does stand out. The liaison took place fourteen years ago. That would seem to leave Greene the “these-are-all-old-stories” dispensation that served President Clinton so well through five years of sexual revelations until Monica made her debut. It has not.
So, after 24 years as a nationally celebrated columnist, television personality, and author of best-sellers, Greene is in disgrace and abrupt retirement. None of the dispensations allowed that other nationally known adulterer has been extended to him. It is obvious, however, that the Trib forced him out. The paper’s publisher has said that he “misused his position for personal benefit.” Of course, so did Bill Clinton, who also lied under oath about his misbehavior and misled the entire nation for a long and painful time while using the power of the White House to smear a federal prosecutor. Apparently the Trib would have disgraced and forced resignation on Clinton if he were an employee. However, editorially it opposed impeachment.
As I say, the details of Greene’s misbehavior are still vague. The paper and the columnist being in the news business really ought to feel obliged to give us more information so that we can arrive at a fair judgment of the writer and his forced resignation. At this point my view is that Greene’s punishment has been capricious and unjust.
I have a fat file of news reports about well-known journalists caught plagiarizing, fabricating stories, and lying about their misdeeds. A surprising number of these journalists have landed right back on the pages of newspapers and magazines and continued to appear on television as authoritative witnesses to the national scene. None has suffered Greene’s ignominy. Greene’s misconduct was personal. These other columnists’ misconduct was public and a breach of ethics.
What is the point that the Trib is making? Is it that adulterous sex with young women is intolerable though it happened fourteen years in the past — even if Greene’s act was criminal the statue of limitations has run out? Is it that a writer has an obligation to inform readers when he is writing about someone he knows intimately (“Full disclosure, I have known Miss Toots carnally,” or “When I think of her I have lust in my heart”)? Is it just that the Chicago Tribune is returning to the middle-American values of its illustrious conservative publisher, old Colonel Robert McCormick? Let me point out the Colonel had an eye for the fair sex. “They all do it,” as the Clintons would say.
Or is Greene just a victim of the society’s swinging pendulum? When our lying and lecherous President was exposed four years ago, the pendulum had swung to the outer regions of toleration. Now it is swinging the opposite way. Perhaps that is why I would rather put my faith in the rule of law than the swings of public opinion. I believe Clinton should have been impeached because he broke the law. I believe Greene should at most have been reprimanded. He broke no laws. The offense took place long ago. Since then his behavior has been unexceptionable, though his writing is hooey. Americans live in a constant drizzle of infantile sex. That some poor sap and his transient amourette catch a bug from it is unfortunate, but these things happen.