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Fallout from the Hart flap

THE Gary Hart scandal has rearranged the political landscape - and stirred up a lot of opinion about presidential candidates and private morality. There was a serious omission in the questions raised about Gary Hart's conduct. Much was said about the possibility of a connection between the marital infidelity of a presidential candidate and the kind of a president he would be, with its implications for risk-taking and the practice of deception.

But where was the assertion that committing adultery was flat-out wrongdoing? Where was it said that the alleged conduct of Mr. Hart, conduct he steadfastly denied, broke one of the Ten Commandments, a code basic to both Christians and Jews?

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It was as if the media and the politicians had decided that only a secular explanation for the possible harm stemming from such sexual activity would be satisfactory. This comes near to being an insult to the millions of Americans who attend church and continue to use the commandments as a guide to their lives.

The other Democrats, including Messrs. Gephardt, Biden, Jackson, Dukakis, Simon, Gore, and Babbitt, have obviously received a decided lift in their campaigns. And with Hart out of the race, others are being asked to consider getting in.

Over breakfast the other morning Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia said that ``incredible pressure'' now would be put on Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia to run. ``Keep your eye on Gore,'' Mr. Rockefeller added, after making it clear that he himself was not reassessing his decision against becoming a candidate. ``This is not my year,'' Rockefeller said, implying that 1992 might be.

On the subject of presidential candidates and presidents who are ``womanizers,'' columnist Ellen Goodman said much that needed to be said when she wrote in response to early rumors about Hart.

``Every president finally serves,'' Ms. Goodman wrote, ``not just as a chief executive, but as chief figurehead, chief role model, chief moral leader - in short, chief American. We ask a great deal. Anyone who runs for the office today has to know that there is no room in the job description for chief womanizer.''

Ms. Goodman reaches this conclusion after stating that there is no empirical evidence proving that such private immorality leads to public immorality. She points out that there is no indication, for example, that the leadership skills or vision of Franklin Roosevelt or John Kennedy was lessened by their private indiscretions. And she rightly deplores the gossipy stories and headlines that turn out to be untrue.

In a prediction that came true a few weeks later when the Miami Herald reported that Mr. Hart spent much of the weekend in his Washington town house with a young actress while his wife was in Colorado, Goodman wrote: ``Hart's marital and extramarital life may be set for the treatment that Ted Kennedy got in 1980.'' It is a prizewinning prediction if I ever saw one!

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Was the Miami Herald overzealous in its stakeout of Mr. Hart's Washington town house? No, it had a tip that the young lady would be there. Furthermore, Hart had invited such close coverage, adding that the press would find it ``boring.'' Boring it was not, even though Hart insisted that nothing immoral happened and that he had simply showed poor judgment in creating an appearance that could be ``misconstrued.''

The press's role in the Hart incident continues to be a subject of much serious discussion. Until recently the peccadilloes of politicians have gone largely unrecorded during their lifetimes. Only historians later mentioned such indiscretions.

For example, reporters knew about John Kennedy's premarital and extramarital sex life - but did not disclose it. The many rumors about Kennedy during the 1960 campaign weren't widely enough known to figure in voter decisions. Only recently has the public learned that President Kennedy lived a private life many would consider immoral.

In fact, we learned only after Kennedy's assassination that women had been sneaked into the White House for rendezvous with the President. A former gangster's moll even claims that she had such meetings with Kennedy. Some observers contend that, had it been divulged, it would not only have destroyed the Kennedy presidency but also have led to an effort to put him out of office.

The big winner in the current incident: President Reagan. The Miami Herald's disclosure, followed by Hart's explanation of his withdrawal diverted much public attention from the Iran-contra hearings.

The losers: Those Republicans who wanted to run against Hart in 1988, assuming he would be the easiest Democrat to beat. Also, Ted Kennedy is a clear loser. With reminders of Chappaquiddick in the air, Kennedy now has lost any chance of emerging as a compromise candidate.

That witty columnist, Mark Shields, while attending the Rockefeller breakfast, volunteered his candidate for the ``big losers'' from this jolt to Hart: ``Hart's creditors.''

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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