Speaking From Experience

"I'm always on the record," Governor Roy Romer confessed as he sat down with a Washington Post reporter for a 45-minute heart-to-heart last month. The interview was just one in a possibly never-ending series of sincere chats during which Romer, the three-term Colorado governor who took a second job as co-chair of the Democratic National Committee back in January 1997, has attempted to explain away the behavior of his boss, Bill Clinton. This particular attempt took place exactly a week after Clinton had testified first to Kenneth Starr's grand jury and then live to the American people, finally confessing to his "inappropriate"--no, goddamn it, downright "wrong"!--relationship with Monica Lewinsky, the former intern he'd referred to as "that woman" when he'd denied such a relationship back in January.

"We've got to get beyond this," Romer told the Post reporter. "But the speech didn't quite do it. And it didn't because it sounded too much like explanation."

Romer knows all about long--and long-delayed--explanations. This past winter, just a week after our turtle-necked guv was seen defending the top Dem--and touting Denver's Super Bowl chances--on Sunday TV talk shows, he was defending his own relationship with B.J. Thornberry. Although that relationship had been rumored for over a decade, Romer denied it when Westword reported on the governor's unusually close connection with Thornberry, then his top aide, back in June 1990, and subsequently denied it again and again as the sticky subject popped up over the years.

But Romer couldn't deny the photographs of a six-minute smooch that the Washington, D.C.-based Insight magazine collected of him and Thornberry. The picture was snapped two years ago, after Thornberry left her job at the governor's office for assorted positions in the nation's capital, including one as director of the DNC (where she would once again get to work closely with Romer--when she wasn't busy depositing all those questionable Democratic campaign contributions that everyone, Starr included, seems to have forgotten).

After Insight's story broke on the Web in early February, Romer had a private chat with Denver Post editor Dennis Britton, revealing, among other things, that he wasn't a very sexual person--six-minute kisses to the contrary. And once Romer started spilling, he couldn't stop. The next day he flew back to Colorado from D.C. for a news conference and, with wife Bea standing behind him, kept confessing to his sixteen-year relationship for 25 minutes.

"I have had a relationship with another woman which is a very fulfilling and, I felt, an honorable and beautiful relationship," Romer told the cameras. "I have been open with my family about it...It is not based on sex."

Romer's explanation continued: "I was asked, did I have an affair and did I have a sexual relationship. My answer was no. Now, let me explain that answer. There was no sexual relationship. 'Affair' is a word that you have to interpret. I chose in those years, '90 to '94, to interpret that if you don't have a sexual relationship, you don't have an affair."

And the legal definition of a sexual relationship, we all know by now, is about as fluid as the material found on Monica's dress.

Back in 1990, in denying the Westword story, Romer told another news conference: "It's not true. I do not have an affair with B.J. Thornberry, nor have I ever. I don't have a sexual relationship with her now, nor have I ever."

Even then, Romer had more explaining to do. It was a shame, he suggested, that women had to pay the price for becoming powerful, becoming successful--say, becoming the top aide of a governor--by dealing with such rumors. Rumors that the only way they could get to the top was by sleeping their way there. It was unfortunate, Romer said, offering the media a handle they would keep spinning for weeks, that women sometimes weren't viewed for their talents so much as "the fact that they are female."

A half-dozen years later, a woman's status in the workplace had evolved to the point that Romer's direct superior, CEO of the Country Clinton, considered it perfectly acceptable to get involved not with a top aide, but with the least powerful of employees, a lowly, airheaded intern who might have been a rubber sex doll for all the appreciation he showed for her more traditional office skills. Now, that's progress.

In his February confession, Romer worried about a "litmus" test that politicians would face as the media continued to plunder their personal lives for sensational stories. But like his tearless leader, Romer missed the point. Had Thornberry not worked for Romer, and had fellow employees not complained about the problems their connection was creating at the state Capitol, the story of their relationship would not have been a news story. Had Clinton kept his pants zipped in the Oval Office--and the Alabama governor's house, and his state trooper's car--his sexual escapades might not be oozing out over the Internet today.

It's the workplace, stupid.
There's another hook that's snagged politicians from Colorado's own Gary Hart a decade ago to Romer again this winter to Idaho's Helen Chenoweth last week: hypocrisy. Hart challenged reporters to follow him; he promised that they'd be "bored." Romer fought rumors of Clinton's infidelity on national TV, in the process resurrecting news interest in his involvement with Thornberry. And Chenoweth, who gained her congressional seat when she outed her opponent for adultery four years ago, kept tempting fate--and inviting headlines--with her current campaign attacking Clinton's character, even though she had her own adulterous affair to explain away.

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