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Jewish World ReviewSept. 16, 1999/ 6 Tishrei, 5760

Suzanne Fields

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The Cisneros lesson -- HENRY CISNEROS is the latest public official wounded by a woman's wrath. He gave her the rope; she set out to find a gallows. She had secretly recorded conversations in which he revealed that he lied to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about how much money he paid her to be quiet about how much money he gave her.

Four years and $10 million of taxpayer's money later, Henry Cisneros pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor, of lying to FBI agents who were doing a routine background check to see whether he was fit to be secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He will pay a fine of $10,000 but escape prison and probation.

Some critics say he got off easy, others look at it as a case that grew like kudzu that should have been pruned years ago. Count me among the pruners. The prosecution case was weak. It was built on he said/ she said and laced with ambiguity. The evidence of 18 felony counts was based on the testimony of a mistress who was a known liar. (The mistress got 42 months in the slammer on related matters.)

It's difficult to understand why the plea bargain, based on a charge contained in the attorney general's initial request for an independent counsel, was not resolved a long time ago.

This was not a cheap sex scandal. There was no Monica in the pantry. When Henry Cisneros was still mayor of San Antonio, a charismatic Hispanic hero with a bright political future whose name was mentioned as a prospective Democratic candidate for vice president, he revealed an affair not of glands but of the heart. He left his wife and children for Linda Medlar -- now Linda Jones -- a pretty blond Anglo fund-raiser. When his son was born with a heart defect that threatened his life, requiring complicated and dangerous surgery, Mr. Cisneros returned to his family.

This is a saga of soap opera proportions. Linda Jones divorced her husband with hopes of marrying her lover. When her lover left she reluctantly acceded to living without him, but she wanted to be paid for her trouble. She had thought to tape 88 conversations between them.

By that time Mr. Cisneros had already paid her $250,000. He told the FBI it was only $60,000. He was afraid he wouldn't get a place in the president's Cabinet if he told the truth.

He was probably right about that. The smaller sum could be spun as "compassion" money. But a quarter of a million dollars smacked of hush money. He was also accused of lying repeatedly at his Senate confirmation hearings.

When I talked to Mr. Cisneros five years ago, before an independent counsel was chosen to investigate and he still entertained hopes of staying at HUD, he waxed

philosophically. "It's ironic," he said, "that if I had acted upon [my initial] impulse which was to remake my life with another person, this problem wouldn't be a story today. But I chose to stay with my family, knowing that this might create this problem."

None of us can look into the human heart of another human or know what really goes on between lovers, or how a promising public servant could slip into such a mess. The independent counsel says he put an end to the case out of sympathy and compassion for a man who served his country well.

But another consideration emerges. In our enlightened age, moral critics are hooted at as Grandma Grundy prudes who play the "Gotcha" game for their own amusement. It's easy to forget why the moral rules are there in the first place: Lots of people get hurt when two people break the ancient rules.

In the wake of this particular scandal, two marriages suffered, one ended in divorce, a wife and children were exposed to public humiliation, a rising political star valued by the Hispanic community and the Democratic party crashed to earth with a sickening thud, a public servant was made vulnerable to blackmail and the good name and the good work of a capable leader was indelibly stained.

In accepting responsibility for his conduct, Henry Cisneros says that men and women who seek public office must learn "that truth and candor are important." What's equally important -- and no doubt more difficult to achieve, is to act in a way that truth and candor pose no problem.


09/13/99: No clemency for personal politics
09/08/99: M-M-M is for manhood
08/30/99: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate