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Public trust betrayed by a private immorality

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 24, 2002

Chicago is learning to live without Bob Greene. The celebrated syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune was shown the door 10 days ago after he owned up to an affair years earlier with a high school senior.

You'd think bigger, deeper issues exist for people to thrash out. Poverty, politics or the Cubs. Something like that.

But people in Chicago get fierce about their columnists. They're still arguing over whether it was right to let Greene go as a result of what he did in a hotel room with a 17-year-old in 1988.

Their affair started with an interview. The teenager had talked to Greene for a school project. Pretty soon, they were meeting in a hotel room for sex.

It's unclear why this incident has just now surfaced. Two weeks ago, the Tribune received an e-mail that prompted an internal investigation. It led to Greene resigning and issuing a statement in which he apologized for his "indiscretions."

Notice the plural, please.

Already, a second woman has come forward and said she had an affair with Greene when she was in her 20s. Radio stations have heard from still other women who said that the famous columnist had hit on them.

None of this was a crime, just seamy and hypocritical.

Greene, 55, is married to his high school sweetheart. While he was busy privately imitating Bill Clinton, he was writing columns that read as if he were putting words to Norman Rockwell's paintings about an America that never existed.

If I were in Chicago, I would be in the minority on the subject of Bob Greene. Most of his readers want him to hang on.

There was a time in newspapering when Greene would have stayed on. There was a time when his behavior would have been the subject of winks and nods in the newsroom.

Newsrooms are no different than any other workplace; they've changed. To show just how much so, the editor of the Tribune -- the editor -- is a woman, Ann Marie Lipinski. It fell to her to get rid of Greene.

A woman could not have decided any other way. Men and women can't work side by side with trust and confidence in each other if men are still engaged in frat-house behavior at work. It's that simple.

Bob Greene had trouble getting this straight. When the woman from 1988 contacted him this past June, he called no less than the FBI. An agent then told the woman in effect to lay off. He hinted she could be prosecuted for harassment or extortion.

Most people cannot get the FBI to jump. This is the kind of power you have when you are at the level of a Bob Greene. You can get buttons pushed, favors paid back, calls placed. You have clout, and you have to be careful how you use it.

Bob Greene was not careful how he used it. If he had been, he wouldn't have used his position to pick up women, women who let themselves be had.

This is a very old story: Young, uncertain woman is wowed by attention of older man of influence and reputation and comes to believe -- oh, boy -- that she's the only one. She blinks. He's gone, on to the next one.

"What is curious to me," said one of the women who claimed to have had an affair with Greene, ". . . is why somebody who is so accomplished at this stage of life has to seek the approval of young women to boost his self-esteem."

His fans would say Greene's peccadillo is no reason to toss him out, that the Tribune was prudish and unfair.

That might be true except that as a columnist, Bob Greene was a public figure and near-public servant. You know the line about living in a glass house. That was Greene's address.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at or (813) 226-3402.

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