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Is Bob Dole’s alleged mistress news? The leadership at the Washington Post doesn’t think so. Investigative reporter Charles Babcock recently wrote a story based on an interview with a woman who said she was Dole’s mistress back during his first marriage. After a lot of discussion, the Post decided to sit on the story. The leadership at the paper apparently figured that because Dole hadn’t touched the forbidden third rail of President Clinton’s conflicted sexual history or come close to the incumbent in the polls, there was no point in besmirching Dole’s years of public service just as he is on his way out the door.

Post editor Leonard Downie Jr. declined to comment on the existence of the story, saying, “We never discuss any stories that we may or may not be working on. There are always rumors about what we might be working on, but we do not discuss them.”

Responding to a general question about how the Post approaches the private lives of public officials, Downie said, “We are bound in terms of what we publish to two rules. One, is it true? And second, is it relevant to public office? When things are published elsewhere, then we re-evaluate.”

It’s likely the Post will have just such an opportunity because the National Enquirer is reportedly about to publish a story concerning the alleged mistress. The Post will be able to do a piece about the Enquirer’s story, which means the paper can traffic in the allegation without sullying itself by being first.

The discussion about whether to publish Babcock’s story reportedly went along gender lines, with female Posties reasoning that the paper isn’t publishing because the wise old men who are making the decisions are men. Although the Post has a long and storied history of ignoring the mistresses of the powerful, winking at the private doings of public figures is bad news judgment and founded in sexism.

The story about the alleged mistress, even though it’s ancient history, seems germane given the current climate. After all, the man Dole is trying to replace recently defended himself against charges that he has a sexually transmitted disease. The voters will be well-served by knowing that the man who conjures up romantic visions of America’s past may have a romantic past of his own.

A Stone Unturned If the Enquirer does run the story about Dole’s alleged past, it will be another example of the impact tabloids have had on this race. On Sept. 14, just weeks after the story broke about Dick Morris playing footsie with a prostitute, the Enquirer and the Star both wrote that Dole adviser Roger Stone and wife Nydia (aka Nikki) posted sexual solicitations on a web site, placed ads soliciting fellow swingers in magazines, and attended a swinger’s club function on Capitol Hill. Several mainstream news outlets picked up the story, and Stone responded with a full-blown counteroffensive, suggesting that both the Enquirer and Star stories were based on lies. In a statement issued following the stories’ publication, Stone blamed the web site and magazine ads on a “sick, disgruntled individual” who just happened to have access to the couple’s credit card, computer password, and P.O. box number.

Given his protests, it was a surprise to hear that Roger and darling Nikki showed up on Oct. 12 at a local bar called The Edge for its “Dungeon Dance,” a festive, mostly gay event that included a roomful of S&M hardware along with ambient circle jerks and blowjobs. It’s a hip scene if you swing that way. A person in attendance said the Stones did not participate in any of the public sexual activity, merely chatting and dancing for a while before they left.

The Post’s Reliable Source got wind of the Stones’ night on the town and called Stone on it. “We danced. We went home. Big deal,” he responded.

That’s a pretty far cry from, “We deny this vile caricature that is being peddled to destroy our lives,” as Stone huffed after the original story broke. He suggested that he and his wife were the victims of a “political dirty trick.” (Stone knows something about dirty tricks. According to the New Republic, Stone worked for Nixon’s notorious CREEP at the tender age of 19.)

The story of Stone’s alleged escapades

was certainly credible enough for Dole spokesman Nelson Warfield, who told the Washington Times, “These allegations are clearly troubling. It reflects behavior Bob Dole does not condone….Obviously the news accounts of these tabloid charges would extinguish his effectiveness in that role.”

But three weeks later, a rehabilitated Stone appeared on CNBC offering pre-debate spin. The campaign may have removed its official stamp of approval, but the media’s need for talking noggins buried questions about his credibility.

Stone managed to stay substantially below the radar by spinning his own story hard enough to stay off the front page. The Enquirer’s allegations—rife with hard, verifiable facts and admissions—appeared a solid choice for the news pages of the Post, but it remained ghettoized in the Reliable Source, the paper’s gossip column.

“Everything we publish is news,” explained Downie. “We like that the Reliable Source did such a good job of reporting and following up on the story. It seemed like the appropriate place to me,” he said.

Post editors apparently reasoned that because Stone was not on the campaign payroll, he didn’t deserve the attention he received from some other dailies, here and abroad.

Stone is not as big a wheel as he was during the Reagan years, but he still handles many major corporate clients for the high-flying Republican PR firm of Davis, Manafort and Stone. (Paul Manafort and Rick Davis both work for the Republican nominee). Before his tabloid abasement, Stone served as a volunteer attack dog for the Dole campaign. On Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect TV show during the Republican convention, Stone reportedly said, “We have a president with a zipper problem.” Stone went on to suggest that the president had hit on his wife at Nixon’s funeral. (Given the Stones’ alleged history, that wouldn’t seem to be a problem. But then again, the ads in the swinger mags expressed an interest in soldier boys and ruled out fat guys. Bill should have dodged the cheeseburgers and not the draft if he wanted to get next to Nikki.)

Stone is a legitimate target. Although his behavior is not illegal, as Morris’ allegedly was, it’s certainly at odds with the Republican platform. And it became a bona fide story after he denied it and had the balls to show up a month later trolling at a leather bar. In a city rife with permissions for the powerful, Stone’s hubris is breathtaking.

This is not the first time Stone has buffaloed the Fourth Estate. In a 1985 New Republic cover profile of Stone titled “State-of-the-Art Sleazeball,” writer Jacob Weisberg painted Stone as a “legendary” spin master. “He supplies [reporters] with off-the-record stories and good quotes on background. In exchange, they print the dirt he plants about his enemies and hype his new clients and valuable services…,” wrote Weisberg. Those same reporters might find other priorities when their editors ask them to look into Stone’s indiscretions.

Stone employed other, less subtle measures to keep the lid on. One of the sources for the Enquirer was Scott Barancik, a local writer who free-lances for Washington City Paper. Barancik did a story about Capitol Couples for City Paper last year, in which he met a buff couple who introduced themselves as Roger and Nikki. On Sept. 9, the Enquirer called Barancik and offered him $1,000 to compare a photo they had with his memory of the couple he had met at the club. Barancik told the Enquirer that he could not say with certainty that its picture matched the man he had met at Capitol Couples. When the story ran, his name leaked, and he was promptly threatened with legal action by Stone’s lawyer, Larry Klayman, in part because the Stones erroneously believed Barancik was the original source of the story. Barancik retained a lawyer and agreed to sign an affidavit saying that he had not positively identified Stone for the Enquirer in exchange for a written agreement not to sue him. Stone immediately began parading the affidavit—including an appearance on Good Morning America—to suggest that the whole story was a hoax.

Stone managed to churn his way through a hail of controversy and is apparently a member in good stead of the Beltway elite. He is now free to pursue his hobbies, and windbag about Republicans’ superior moral values. As Stone said, “Big deal.” Especially when no one is watching.

The Next Big Hoax Reading glossies like Vanity Fair and Esquire is usually an exercise in finding out just how far behind the curve we are. Every month we are treated to a massive takeout on some performer who is rising imperceptibly into stardom. That’s why Martha Sherrill’s Esquire profile of “The Allegra Coleman Nobody Knows” rang so true. The cover featured the requisite vacant-eyed confection with her pants pulled down just far enough to reveal her cow bones. Sherrill’s fizzy annotation of a few California days spent trailing the next big thing included the requisite car ride where writer bonds with subject. But Sherrill already knew her subject better than anyone because she made her up. Even though Coleman’s bio included bit parts in various movies and photos of her on the arms of Tarantino et al. Allegra was conceived between Sherrill’s ears. Sherrill pitched the phantom profile last May, and Esquire editors loved it, although they vetoed the idea of killing her at the end of the story.

“I didn’t do it because I wanted to piss anybody off. It’s just a little joke. All of these pieces are about making people feel insecure. You know, ‘Here is this unbelievable heavenly creature and Martha Sherrill has been sitting next to her for three days.’ And you have no idea who they are even talking about,” says Sherrill, who did her share of buoyant profiling at Style. She is currently on a book leave, writing about spiritual life in America.

The packaging of the spoof dropped some hints along the way, including Sherrill’s writer’s bio, which began, “If Allegra Coleman didn’t exist, somebody would have to make her up.” That’s exactly what Sherrill did after giving a speech at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop about celebrity profiling. “I actually tallied up all the ones I had done and it made me so sick of it, I never wanted to do it again.” Sherrill’s big whopper probably ensures that she doesn’t have to worry about being assigned any meet-and-tells in the near future. Esquire and Sherrill are not oblivious to the self-parody at hand and seem content to relax and enjoy the buzz Allegra has wrought. Why Allegra? “I love the name, but I don’t think I would have the nerve to name a baby Allegra.”—David Carr

E-mail Paper Trail at dcarr@washcp.com or call (202-332-2100).