Sealed With a Kiss
Governor Roy Romer lied.
You can read his lips in a six-minute smooch that catches Romer in the middle of a close, personal consultation with B.J. Thornberry, his former deputy chief of staff, in the front seat of a car parked outside Dulles Airport. The kiss was captured in 1995, five years after Romer denied having an affair with Thornberry. The denial came in June 1990, when Romer and his wife, Bea, exited a plane at Stapleton for a hastily assembled press conference at which the governor would respond to a story just printed in Westword. The article was false, Romer said. He was not having an affair with his top aide. Instead, he and Thornberry had a "professional" relationship.
Last Friday, Romer and Bea disembarked from another plane--this time at Centennial Airport--for another hastily assembled press conference. That very morning, Romer said, Bea had turned to him and asked, "Where's my six-minute kiss?" Instead, his wife of 45 years--she had to remind him how long they'd been married--got a quick buss at the end of the session, one scripted into the schedule that Romer's aides had handed out. So tender. So sad. So stomach-churning.
You can kiss this man's credibility goodbye.
Read his lips.
Kiss and Tell
In the almost eight years since Westword published "The Rumor About Rumor," allegations of the governor's infidelity have made only minor blips on the radar screen. Back in June 1990, the story blew over within hours--literally--when tornadoes decimated Limon and Romer raced to the rescue. In 1994, during a gubernatorial campaign that made front-page fodder of Republican Bruce Benson's drunken-driving arrest and ugly divorce, Romer repeated his denials--and again escaped scrutiny.
After all this time, he must have been feeling safe. Safe enough, at least, to engage in some very public spit-swapping.
Early last Thursday morning, Insight magazine, an affiliate of the Democrat-bashing Washington Times, posted on the Web another story about Romer's relationship with Thornberry. In 1993 she'd left Colorado to work for the Clinton administration, first at the Department of the Interior and then, in March 1996, as director of the Democratic National Committee. But she'd always stayed in touch--close touch--with Romer, who was no stranger to D.C. In fact, according to Insight, they spent the night together in a Washington townhouse. And when Romer was appointed chair of the DNC in January 1997, he began spending even more time out of state--and within Thornberry's reach.
It is in his allegedly part-time role as head of the DNC that Romer has served as one of Bill Clinton's chief apologists. Clad in bomber jacket and that newly affected turtleneck, Romer has been on constant call to defend the president against his alleged sexual activities--with Paula Jones, with Monica Lewinsky, with anyone and anything. This was the hook that caught Insight: How could Romer talk about family values and integrity when he himself was involved with Thornberry--an involvement captured on videotape and in photographs?
As word of the Insight piece leaked out, Romer's advisors started spinning. They discouraged local TV stations from pursuing a story that, after all, had appeared in a conservative Moonie magazine and was based on tapes no doubt provided by that notorious right-wing conspiracy; the governor wasn't even going to dignify the allegations with a response, they said. That was enough to convince Channel 9--the station that had gone to court four years earlier to pry open Benson's divorce files--to stay silent; Channel 4, after working on a story all day, also decided not to go with it. (Although Romer still hadn't responded--that they knew of--Channels 2 and 7 both ran pieces Thursday night.) Even the Denver Post had decided the Insight allegations weren't particularly newsworthy--until Romer decided to make some news of his own: He offered the Post an "exclusive" interview that wound up sounding like a press release for Geritol.
"I needed an infusion of spirit and energy, and I found that in Thornberry," Romer told editor Dennis Britton via phone from D.C. "It was a professional relationship that grew into a supportive personal one." And a smoochy one--but Romer swore that sex wasn't involved. In a revelation worthy of Marshall Applewhite, Romer confided to Britton that he was "not a very sexual person."
Or a very secretive one. Mary Romer Ammons, who was in D.C. with her father, provided the Post with her own observations. His relationship with Thornberry "had been discussed, talked about, worked through, negotiated. My mother has not been deceived."
But it's hard to imagine that Bea Romer was pleased.
Nor were many of the reporters at that Friday press conference, who moped around like they, too, had been betrayed by a longtime lover. And not just once, either. They'd been cheated on eight years before, when they had bought Romer's denial--or at least the argument that private lives were nobody's business, and besides, writing about the subject of sex could get you in so much trouble. And they'd been fooled again just the day before, when they'd left work assured by the governor's office that Romer wasn't talking, only to find that both Romers had issued statements after the ten o'clock news. (The Rocky Mountain News, which had pursued the videotape angle, managed to retool its story before the paper went to bed, excuse the expression.)
Roy Romer's statement: "My relationship with B.J. Thornberry is a long-standing one, which my family is fully aware of and understands. I ask people to respect our private lives."
Bea Romer's statement: "B. J. Thornberry is a close friend of Roy's. He has been open with me and shared the facts about the relationship with me from the beginning. It has not affected our marriage or our family. I ask people to respect our private lives."
But even Romer himself could not do that. Once caught in a clinch, he decided to kiss and tell. And tell. And tell.
His statements at Friday's press conference are classics in slobbery semantics. Read his lips:
"It's a very strong relationship," Romer said of his marriage. "Solid. We have a very strong extended family. In the course of 45 years in many marriages in this country, different attitudes develop in a marriage. About 50 percent of them end up in divorce; they can't work them out. But in those who remain married, there still are times in which there are different feelings and different interests, different relationships. In the course of this, about sixteen years ago, I began to work with a person who became a very close professional colleague and a very good personal friend, in a very supportive personal relationship...I was open with Bea and my family about that all that period of time. In that process, there is a working-out of how you related. In this particular family, that working-out was that my marriage, our marriage, was always first. This relationship was secondary. This relationship had limits."
So did Romer's honesty.
"What is the truth of my statements in 1990 and 1994?" Romer asked. Then he answered, "They were truthful. 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 and '94, to interpret that if you don't have a sexual relationship, you don't have an affair."
A six-minute smooch is no handshake, however.
"Let me say it straight," Romer repeated. "This is not a sexual relationship; it is a very affectionate relationship. And I'm not trying to define when affection ends and sex begins, okay? That's as straight as I can be."
The Plot Sickens
Even as readers were trying to get a grip on Romer's slippery statements--so reminiscent of the drool Bill Clinton has been issuing over the question of "sexual relations" with "that woman"--local reporters were rushing off to expand the story. While the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, Time and other outlets attempted to offer straightforward accounts of Romer's twisted delivery (had Romer not held the press conference, they might have ignored the story altogether), News and Post reporters were churning out ludicrous analyses of what constituted adultery. "Open marriages" were defunct, psychologists assured News readers. Theologians were worried that Americans were losing their morals, warned the Post.
Still, the most succulent stories centered on who might have caught that six-minute smooch on videotape--and on whose payroll.
The early suspicions focused on R.W. "Pete" Peterson, a local private eye who's never met a reporter he didn't like--at least long enough to plant a story. It was Peterson who was arrested for chasing down Gennifer Flowers during her brief residence in Denver. It was Peterson who was popped again in 1995 for breaking and entering when he was on a job for mogul Marvin Davis. And oh, yes, it was Peterson who led the search for Roseanne's illegitimate daughter, given up for adoption two decades before; who trailed A.C. Cowlings for an organization known as "Friends of Nicole," of which Nicole Brown Simpson's family denied any knowledge; and who was doing something hush-hush in Boulder.
Somehow over the past year, Peterson also found time to call assorted media outlets, including Westword, to hint that he had photos of Romer together with Thornberry. No one bit then (hey, not only had we done our story in 1990, but Thornberry was no longer on the state payroll), but when Insight reported that it had videotape from 1995, Peterson was a natural suspect. He certainly did nothing to dissuade reporters from thinking he might have been the cameraman. Peterson told the News that he was inspired by a grudge he'd been holding against Romer ever since the governor had lied to him. He defended the use of surveillance to the Post.
But the best Peterson revelation--thus far--came in Monday's Post, in a front-page story: "Governor Roy Romer once authorized controversial private investigator R. W. 'Pete' Peterson to ensure he wasn't being followed by a Denver weekly pursing a story about the governor's relationship with his deputy chief of staff."
That paper, of course, was Westword.
Here's how Jim Carpenter, Romer's press secretary, tries to explain it to Westword: "Pete Peterson went to the governor. He initiated the contact...Everybody knew that you were working on something back in 1990. He said, 'Maybe I could help you find out what was going on.' The governor remembers saying something like, 'Sure, see what you can find out.'"
Before he knew about the Peterson-Romer deal, Carpenter had shared his feelings about surveillance with the Post: "The people of Colorado and Americans need to be very concerned when you have secret stalking and surveillance of public officials. That seems to me to send a bad signal about our democracy."
Here's how Peterson remembers it: "I was working for a client, and he asked me to check out" rumors that Westword was doing a story on the Romer/Thornberry relationship. And so, at his still-unnamed client's behest, Peterson went to Romer and asked about the rumors. "He told me point-blank there was nothing to it. He said, 'Pete, you know I'm a good guy.'" Peterson volunteered to find out what Westword knew, an unpaid job that took him four to six weeks (but could have been accomplished with one call). "Six to eight months later," he says, "I found out that I'd been duped."
No shit, Sherlock.
But Peterson apparently is not alone in holding a grudge against Roy Romer. Someone else wanted to get the goods on the governor--wanted it so much, in fact, that he or she authorized surveillance of Romer in 1995--surveillance that resulted in the tape cited in Insight.
Yes, there was a second shooter.
"I think that's a good possibility," Peterson concedes. "I think something else was going on. I've seen some anonymous material, heard a tape."
And while Jamie Dettmer, senior editor of Insight, will not reveal the source of the tapes, he confirms that it was not Peterson. The leaking of the videotapes was a bipartisan effort, he says, one involving both Republicans and Democrats back in Colorado.
Who were they? Fingers have been pointed at Clifford May, former News editor who's now communications head of the Republican National Committee; he denies it. And at Bruce Benson, who's not saying much but is clearly enjoying Romer's predicament. And at Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who switched from the Democratic to the Republican party in early 1995 and might have faced Romer had the governor made a run for the Senate in 1996. Campbell's saying plenty, but nothing about the videotape. And fingers are even pointing at the law firm of Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber & Strickland, home of Tom Strickland, who did run for Senate in 1996--but with Roy's son Chris as his campaign manager. "I would normally say it doesn't dignify a response," says longtime Romer supporter Steve Farber, "but I'll say it's ridiculous."
And the best rumor of all: that the videotapes were leaked by the White House, to distract attention from Bill Clinton.
Such a reward for loyalty. But if that was the plan, it didn't work very well, did it?
Dettmer doesn't understand why Colorado is so focused on who did the surveillance rather than on what Romer did--and continues to do, since the governor has said he plans to carry on with his "affectionate" relationship, "a very fulfilling and, I felt, an honorable and beautiful relationship."
In another time, Romer would probably have to step down from the DNC (Thornberry resigned from there last fall and is now at HUD). But there's never been a time like this one. Because if Romer were to step down over a long-term, meaningful relationship, wouldn't Clinton have to resign over a short-term, meaningless blow job?
Then again, since every new accusation against Clinton only increases his approval rating, Roy Romer might as well tell all.
The Body Politic
When Westword broke "The Rumor About Romer" in 1990, Romer got to play the victim--and Westword was the villain. At the urging of Continental Airlines, whose local consultant was a good pal of the governor's, Westword was dumped as the sponsor of the Denver International Film Festival. (Continental itself, of course, abandoned Denver altogether a few years later.)
Most of the media coverage consisted of beating up on Westword for presuming to write about the private life of a public official--even though he was sharing that life with another person on the state payroll. One of the oddest story lines was suggested by Romer himself, at that first press conference. Was such scrutiny the price women had to pay for becoming successful in politics, in business? All too often, women in the workplace were judged not on their talents, but "on the fact that they are female."
But if Romer's ever been in a six-minute liplock with a male staffer, then he has a stronger position on same-sex marriages than he's let on.
Last fall Romer complained that the reporters inside the Beltway (isn't that an apt word?) who kept quizzing him about those pesky DNC donations, weren't as nice as the media folks back home.
But the local press isn't feeling so charitable toward him today. Their pal has played fast and loose with the truth. He's lied to them. And for a while, other politicians may pay the price in increased attention to their personal lives.
"Where do we draw the line?" frets Representative Diana DeGette.
Here's a simple pecking order:
The line is drawn at a politician authorizing surveillance of a newspaper.
The line is drawn at a politician who maintains an affectionate, sleep-over relationship with someone on the payroll. Even if that relationship is just fine and dandy with the politician's spouse, even if that relationship never goes beyond smooching and cuddling, it smacks of cronyism.
Politicians should stick to kissing babies.
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