Commentary Magazine


Geraldo Rivera and Common Decency

There are those who will dismiss Fox News personality Geraldo Rivera’s announcement that he is considering running for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey in 2014 as a Republican as just one more publicity stunt in a career replete with them. Rivera’s public record is mixed, as it has combined serious advocacy on a number of issues with the sort of foolish excess that has given a bad name to tabloid journalism. If people think of him more as a celebrity than a journalist, it is his own fault and not something that he has seemed to mind very much.

Nevertheless, Rivera has as much right to run for public office as any other citizen and if he thinks he can spend the rest of his life more productively in public service that is to his credit. Though it is doubtful whether his notoriety will translate well into the political arena, he is both articulate and smart enough to give a good account of himself in any debate–even against a rising star like Cory Booker, who will probably be the Democratic nominee in that race. It is also arguable that someone running explicitly as a moderate Republican, as Rivera is calling himself, has a chance to win in a blue state like New Jersey. But in articulating just that rationale for his candidacy Friday afternoon on Fox News in an interview with Sheppard Smith, Rivera highlighted the seamier aspects of his past and therefore the difficulty of separating the outrageous media personality from the would-be political crusader.

During the course of explaining what he saw as the need as well as the opening for a Republican who stood for a more welcoming attitude toward Hispanic immigrants as well as one who rejected the pro-life sensibilities of much of the GOP, Rivera spoke of the man whom he saw as his political model: Jacob Javits. Javits served four terms in the Senate for New York from 1956 to 1980 and was, according to some studies, the most liberal Republican to serve in Washington during that period. His principled support of civil rights as well as Israel rightly endeared him to many, but for many Republicans he was the quintessential “Rockefeller Republican” who provided an echo rather than a contrast to the liberal Democratic agenda.

We live in an era in which conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans are virtually an extinct species. Indeed, with the departure from the Senate of Joe Lieberman, there aren’t even any more “Scoop Jackson Democrats” who combined liberal positions on domestic issues with conservative foreign policy stands. We can debate as to whether this is a good thing or a bad one but it is a political reality in both parties. However, if Rivera thinks it is time to revive Javits’s legacy, New Jersey is as good place to try as any.

But whatever one may say about this effort, it would be more appropriate for Rivera to leave Javits’s name out of his campaign speeches and appearances. That’s because the two men have long been linked in a way that has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with personal ethics.

In his 1991 autobiography Rivera wrote, or should we say boasted, of his many romantic conquests and named names. This is the sort of thing that—even in an age in which traditional reticence about the public discussion of sex has been junked—must be considered not the act of a gentleman. But while public immorality may not help a candidate, after Bill Clinton neither can it be said to doom one provided there is at least a dollop of contrition, even of the hypocritical variety. Perhaps by painting himself in such a terrible light, Rivera has also rendered any opposition research about himself both unnecessary and ineffective.

But among the names of Rivera’s paramours was one that ought to have prevented him from talking about being Javits successor, that of Marian Javits, the senator’s wife with whom the newsman bragged of carrying on a torrid extramarital affair.

As I wrote on Friday when speaking of Senator Robert Menendez’s current troubles, even in 2013 there is an argument to be made for holding public officials to a high standard of personal conduct, or at least to expect them not to wallow in the gutter. What Geraldo Rivera did as a young man need not require New Jersey voters to reject him today as a senatorial candidate but common decency still ought to require him to leave Javits out of the discussion.

It is a matter of opinion as to whether the bad taste of some of Rivera’s past stunts will overwhelm the appeal of his celebrity or his undoubted intelligence and talent for public speaking in the minds of the voters. But in trumpeting himself as the next Jack Javits, Rivera has redefined the measure of bad taste to the point where he is not so much a practitioner as he is the embodiment of it. As such, whatever one may think about his positions on the issues or whether media personalities can make good politicians, his entry into the political arena cannot be greeted with anything but dismay.

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