When presented with a rumor about him by one of his aides, Abraham Lincoln was said to have remarked, “For people who like this sort of thing, this is the kind of thing they will like.” Whether it’s the debunked myth about J. Edgar Hoover in a dress or Barack Obama as a secret agent for Al Qaeda, if you are sufficiently invested in these theories, you can find your proof.
I write to address one of the most wicked and prevalent canards of the modern political era. You know the one: That young reporter Sandy Hume committed suicide in 1998 because a gay affair with married Congressman Bill Paxon (who resigned abruptly days after the suicide) was about to be exposed? Recall that this was about the time of the Monica Lewinsky scandal when speculation on the burgeoning Internet about the Clintons dispatching their enemies with extreme – and creative – prejudice was at its zenith.
There is something anthropologically appealing about the false Hume narrative among some who travel in conservative circles. Another case in point: A brand new book alleging that Richard Nixon had a gay affair with Bebe Rebozo. In Hume’s case, this construct was perhaps exacerbated by his being the son of Fox News anchor, Brit Hume.
While there surely are people wrestling with repressed sexual demons, Sandy Hume was not one of them and the record shows as much. Columnist Daniel Cassidy, who formerly worked in the administrations of both Bush presidencies, debunked the rumored affair in his December, 2011 article featuring former New York Congressman Guy Molinari, who explained Paxon’s sudden departure from Congress in 1998 saying, “Bill was so disgusted about what was being done to him by his supposed colleagues that he just quit.” Molinari, whose daughter Susan married Paxon, further explained, “I can guarantee you as his father-in-law, there was nothing to those rumors and Bill is definitely not gay.”
Another false narrative seeking to link Sandy to Paxon as the source for a 1997 article by Hume, which detailed an effort to oust then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, was laid to rest in a 2004 book by former Congressman Joe Scarborough who wrote: “I told Sandy everything about the coup from the beginning to end to show everybody that really happened. Bill Paxon didn’t give Sandy the story. I did.”
How is it that such an ugly story that is light years from truth was never debunked?
One reason is because the Hume family is, in at least one respect, a throwback to a different time when one can be a public figure and private person at the same time. There were no tearful interviews with Geraldo. There was no Washington Post Magazine cover story where the bereaved family appeared with Sandy’s baby pictures under the conceit that they were “going public to help others.”
The Humes, however, were quite candid with their circle of friends about the terrible circumstances of his death. Several years before his death, an incident of public drunkenness had made its way into an AP story, a source of intense humiliation to Sandy Hume. He had stopped drinking in the wake of it, but had started again shortly before his suicide.
According to news reports, Sandy had been drinking heavily the night before he died. A March, 1998 account of the episode by Jake Tapper for Washington City Paper reported that Hume was speeding in his car and refused to pull over after being chased by the police – and kept speeding until his car stalled. He refused to take a Breathalyzer test, was arrested, and thrown into a jail cell where he tried to hang himself with a shoelace.
Sandy was taken to a psychiatric ward whereupon he talked his way into a speedy release. Soon after being released, he wrote a suicide note and shot himself. At the time, the series of events were outlined in a number of news stories, including one by his editor at The Hill newspaper, David Grann, available on The New Republic’s archives. But as the years passed, the absurd Internet rumors managed to overshadow the sad but more prosaic truth.
Regrettably, online rumors never die, but it is possible for the occasional flicker of rationality and discretion. Just as it is possible that a delusional former Marine with Marxist sympathies can be a crack shot with a cheap rifle in 1963 Dallas, it is possible that a promising young reporter can be in the throes of twin illnesses in 1998. We would do well in 2012 to remind ourselves that the vacuum of mystery and sorrow need not be filled by hackneyed tales that teach us nothing.