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TELEVISION REVIEW

WGBH's 'Hidden Life' digs behind headlines on outed, ousted mayor

"Frontline"'s "A Hidden Life," which airs tomorrow night , will haunt you for the gray it finds beneath the black and white of life.

The program begins with the seamy tale of Jim West, the conservative Republican mayor of Spokane, Wash., who was drummed out of office late last year after a local paper ran stories about his closeted, predatory homosexuality and, more explosively, allegations that he had had sex with at least one youngster decades earlier.

In all, the Spokesman-Review wrote 189 articles about West's alleged pedophilia, his trolling a gay online chat-room for young men while mayor, and his purported use of office to encourage intimate relationships.

The story immediately went national, fueled largely by West's hypocrisy. As a state senator, he had cosponsored legislation to ban gays from teaching in public schools. (It went nowhere.) The FBI opened an investigation into his offers of City Hall internships to young men, and a movement to recall him erupted.

Confronted by the paper, West admitted his homosexuality but denied any pedophilia. Still, his life was ruined, and he was voted out of office by a wide margin. The FBI eventually dropped the investigation, and this past summer, West, who was suffering from colon cancer, died at 55 .

Co - producers and - directors Rachel Dretzin and Barak Goodman burrow beneath these marquee story lines to great effect. We learn that Steven Smith, editor of the Spokesman-Review, and investigative reporter Bill Morlin decided to mount an online sting to out West. This was based on a tip from a college student who met West on a gay chatroom, and says he had consensual sex with the mayor in a parking lot.

The paper hired an outside consultant to pose as a 17-year-old minor online. Here, "Frontline" asks the right question: Doesn't this ruse border on entrapment? (Nothing sexual occurred.) Morlin and Smith said no because West's online trolling fit his alleged history of abusing minors. Morlin wraps himself self-righteously in the argument that he couldn't pose as a minor without violating the paper's code of ethics, but the consultant could.

But West's history is based largely on the testimony of two men, one of whom had never mentioned West during the several occasions he accused a close friend of the mayor's of sexual abuse. (That man later killed himself.) Why did the accuser wait 25 years before naming West, days before the first story was published?

It gets stranger. In his past West proposed to a woman on the floor of the state Senate. They were married and the union fell apart after she miscarried .

The Spokane gay community, meanwhile, loathed West for his homophobic legislation and the poor image he presented as a closeted gay politician.

Ultimately, though, the Spokesman-Review couldn't provide substantial proof of sexual abuse, nor that West sought underage partners online.

By the end, we find a measure of sympathy for West. He died broken and alone. We lack convincing proof of his pedophilia, and we see his tragedy along with his bad behavior. At one point, he tells Smith, "I lived a life of hell."

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