Private affairs, public scrutiny

The press typically straddles the fine line between private lives and public issues.

On Feb. 20, I first heard about first lady Dawn Gibbons telling friends her marriage was over. The rumors were, in political circles anyway, fairly rampant.

My general philosophy when it comes to covering public people is that they are all permitted to retain their private lives. The fishbowl of public service is already too hard for so many people to handle and the dearth of quality candidates is in part a response to having every part of your life open for inspection.

But there is often a nexus between the private and public.

Former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey's affair with a man was a stunner not because the married McGreevey turned out to be gay, but because the boyfriend had been on the state's payroll.

The controversial New York Times article about John McCain's ties to a female lobbyist was not so much sordid because the pair spent a lot of time together, but because the paragon of ethical reform in Washington appears just like any other politician. The article's exposure of the lobbying ties to McCain (he took several actions as committee chairman favorable to the lobbyist's clients) paint him in a hypocritical light despite the statements by all parties that the two didn't have a physical relationship.

So when I learned Gov. Jim Gibbons was seeking a divorce and his wife was seeking to publicly embarrass him about it, it quickly became a story of which I wanted no part. Yet, I still placed calls to the governor's office on Feb. 21.

The purpose of these calls was to determine if there is a public nexus to a very private matter. I also checked to see if divorce papers had been filed. After all, it is news if the first couple becomes the former first couple.

On Feb. 22, Gibbons staff essentially told me the matter was private and that neither the governor nor his wife wanted to comment.

So, like the rest of the mainstream press in Nevada, I left the issue alone.

Then came a very strange action by Gibbons' chief operating officer, Diane Cornwall. On Feb. 28, she told the Reno Gazette-Journal the couple planned a family meeting this weekend to discuss the future of their relationship with their 20-year-old son, who was expected to be home on leave.

The newspaper posted Cornwall's comments on its Web site Thursday, opening the door for reporters statewide to enter the private life of the governor and his wife.

Imagine if you're the 20-year-old son of the governor and you first learn your parents are splitting in the newspaper.

I was a college journalism student when 35 of my classmates from Syracuse University were killed in the terrorist bombing of Pan-Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. I will never forget the image of a fellow student's mother breaking down as television cameras filmed airline officials informing her of her child's death.

There is a time and place for public scrutiny of some private moments. Sadly, Ms. Cornwall has neither the empathy nor the grace to understand the difference.

You can only wonder how this weekend's private family meeting will eventually play out in the governor's office. And that is a very public matter indeed.

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The personal friendship between John Hunt and Bill Stanley may have led to part of the debacle at the Clark County Democratic Non-Convention last weekend.

Stanley appears to have been granted the chairmanship of the convention simply because he's an old buddy of Hunt's.

This happens all the time in politics -- and even more so in internecine party operations.

National delegates get picked for conventions less on the merits of who they are than on who they know.

Still, the very public blow-up at the convention has led many Democrats to call for Hunt's resignation as party chairman and Stanley's as convention chairman.

Since "Heckavu-Job" Hunt won't step down and since party officials now say he and Stanley have to be a part of the reconvened convention, here's a little unsolicited advice for the pals.

1. Pick a large building.

2. Call every person on the central committee list and every person from the offices of major elected Democrats and beg them to staff the event.

3. Create a Web site and staff a phone line to pre-register all delegates. Inform the campaigns and try to let everyone know how registration will work.

4. At the actual site, reconvene the meeting and open not with the grandiose proclamation that this is the greatest day in the history of the county's Democrats, but with a giant mea culpa.

5. Quickly announce the results of delegate presidential preferences and assign alternates for a second vote. This, of course, may not be necessary if Hillary Clinton has dropped out of the race by the time the reconvened convention is held.

6. Select the delegates to the state convention.

Of course, these are just some of the steps Hunt and Stanley should have taken prior to last Saturday's debacle. But since they couldn't do it the first time, most Democrats don't have much faith they'll figure it out by the next time.

Contact Erin Neff at (702) 387-2906, or by e-mail at