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December 1998 - Volume 30 Issue 12


The Clinton-Lewinsky Obsession
How the press made a scandal of itself

by Todd Gitlin


Illustration by Joshua Barlow
To derail his presidency, a thrill-seeking president had to come into the sights of a prosecutor with virtually unbridled powers, married to an omnivorous press. How did the news business, also known (when it is giving itself awards) as the profession of journalism, turn into a nonstop strip-search? How to account for the sheer volume of the scandal coverage, and the gloating tone of much of it, the gleeful obsession, the overkill and wallowing that seized hold of journalism in these United States?

Barking Heads

Start with the Sunday morning barking heads, the high church that certifies each week what the political class is and ought to be talking about, issuing self-fulfilling prophecies for inside dopesters. Consider especially ABC's "This Week," where Cokie Roberts declared, on Jan. 25, 1998, with the Lewinsky story four days old, "There's only one real question that's being asked in Washington this week, and that is, can President Clinton survive?" Along the Potomac, among the knowing, it was thunderously clear what was real - and it was not the fate of women without childcare, or children without doctors.

One function of the Sunday shows is to make certain notions thinkable. Between his Sunday punditry and nightly reports, no one bulldogs America's political conversation more than ABC's Sam Donaldson. Donaldson's repute rests not on his reporting, not on his preparation, but on his leather lungs, his selective bullying and his bellow. He jeers the big cheese in charge, whoever it is, because ideology matters less than attitude. On "This Week," the emphatic Donaldson makes George Will look thoughtful, the studious boy who does his homework as opposed to the loudmouth pumped up on attitude. Here was Donaldson on Jan. 25: "If he's not telling the truth, I think his presidency is numbered in days. This isn't going to drag out. We're not going to be here three months from now talking about this."

Of course more than nine months later Donaldson, Roberts, Will & Co. were still talking about "this." But Donaldson, Roberts, Will, Tim Russert and the rest matter not because of their acumen, let alone their accuracy, but because powerful people think that what they say matters - because official Washington and its eavesdroppers watch the Sunday shows in order to know what they had better take into account as they plot their own moves. Like prosecutors talking about "this case" as if they were observers from the far reaches of outer space, journalists like to talk as though "this story" had a life of its own, as if it landed and stayed on front pages and Sunday morning shows by itself. Already, on Jan. 25, Donaldson was declaring, "I'm amazed at the speed with which this story is going." Of course it all depends what the meaning of "this story" is. On Jan. 21, the day the Monica story broke, it was Donaldson - not "this story" - who, at the White House press briefing, asked whether Clinton would cooperate with an impeachment inquiry.

The ardor of the barking heads even makes straight news people squeamish at times. Chris Vlasto, an ABC News producer who, as we shall see, cannot be accused of excessive tenderness toward the White House, told me: "The night Jackie [Judd] and I broke the story, Jan. 21, impeachment never crossed our minds. It only came up that Sunday on 'This Week.' I think it's unfair that the talking heads on MSNBC, on our own network and the rest, have stoked the flames."

The Rush Back from Havana

The thrill of a breaking story, any breaking story, is easy to understand, and so is the dynamic that keeps CNN and MSNBC, the 24-hour news channels, along with the tabloids, scraping the bottoms of all accessible barrels for cigar butts. The word of words is competition, and not only for bottom-line purposes. News organizations live for the frenzy of getting "there" first, getting "the story," getting the "get," getting the Big Creep. Recall that on Jan. 21, all three network anchors were in Havana to cover the Pope's visit - all in a position, American news media being what they are, to certify to the American public that Cuba exists and that what happens there might be newsworthy. All three promptly picked themselves up and flew back to Washington to cover (or rather, witness the wreckage from) Hurricane Monica. Dan Rather seems to have been most reluctant to go, later telling Jeff Greenfield on CNN: "If you want to stay in the anchoring business, you have two choices. You can get back to Washington and cover this big breaking story, or you ask for asylum in Cuba ... If one [anchor] had made the decision to stay, one of the three over-the-air national anchor people, I think he'd have gotten killed in the press. He'd have gotten killed by his bosses internally. I just don't think it was practical to say no." In March, receiving a career excellence award at Harvard, Rather picked up this theme again: "If I really deserved this award, I'd have stayed behind in Havana to cover the Pope's visit," instead of returning to "lurid innuendo, sex, and sensationalism and smirking and winking... I wish I'd had the guts but I chickened out." Rather's confession might have made a nice story for some major paper, or TV Guide or People, but it didn't rate.

As it was, on Jan. 21, CBS delayed 26 precious minutes before going to the president's Jim Lehrer interview denying entanglement with Lewinsky. For lagging behind ABC, NBC, CNN, and Fox, CBS got tweaked in the papers. "After months of chanting hard news, hard news," crowed Eric Mink in the New York Daily News, "CBS News blew it with the pressure on." No one rushed to defend CBS for its principled foot-dragging. It was lost on no one that the one network executive who didn't go live to the death and transfiguration of the people's princess in 1997, Lane Venardos, was soon demoted from his position overseeing hard news.

Did CNN, MSNBC, and the Internet force Rather's hand? Cable and on-line news are too easy to blame for pressing the once-respectable organs ever downward. True, a TV monitor stays tuned to CNN in every newsroom, and on MSNBC, where the soap-opera format glided seamlessly from All-OJ to All-Diana to All-Monica, many a media personage has tied his success to the rising Starr. Instant stars have no incentive to see the scandal with any sense of proportion. Chris Matthews' nightly rant, "Hardball", swelled from 30 to 60 minutes last March, and when the Clinton video was released, MSNBC ratings shot up seven times higher than average. The absolute numbers are still small - CNN and MSNBC between them average less than three-quarters of a million viewers in prime time - but the increment is most attractive. Media analysts tune to these channels and are inclined to blame them - along with Internet news - for driving the hunt for scoops, stripping away inhibitions.

"We felt the drumbeat of CNN from the beginning," one top CBS news executive told me. "The picture of Monica in the beret. All the repetition elevated the importance of the story, made us feel that we'd better put more resources into it." But the competition CBS cares about most comes from ABC and NBC, not cable. It's ABC's Jackie Judd who runs CBS a merry race. In print, too, the drive toward scoops can never be underestimated. The Times, still smarting from the Post's Watergate coup, jumped the gun with Whitewater, and since then, leaping from gate to gate, neither the Times nor the Post has looked back.

From Woodward & Bernstein to Isikoff

Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, who dogged the Clinton sex story for months and finally got the scoop of scoops, got his journalistic start working for the Capitol Hill News Service, a Nader-funded operation. Was he, as reported, inspired by Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein? "In the general way that anybody of my age probably was," he told me. Such is the cunning of history. Woodward and Bernstein rounded out the Sixties by bringing down a government steeped in lies not about sex but about burglary, assault, and war. Whereupon investigative reporters were knighted by an invigorated establishment press. At the Post, self-mythologizing took over. In TV news, attitude became the norm: insouciance, snideness, and badgering, easily - but falsely - mistaken for ideological opposition. Something similar happened in print, leading Woodward to speak of the press last year, even before the Lewinsky uproar, as "prisoners of Watergate" - trapped in the assumption that behind a scatter of facts and allegations, as in the murk of Whitewater, lies a grand plot.

Whitewater and all the other "-gates" (Travel-, File- , et al.) have been pounced on as instances of Watergate Lite, a matter of moral passion applied indiscriminately. Sex tales matter vastly more than the bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum. Follow the money or the intern. Politics is reduced to criminality. Dirty land deals and stained dresses are easy to insinuate about. To cover them, as Joe Klein put it in an interview with Tim Russert, "You don't have to know anything." But the traverse from Woodward and Bernstein to Isikoff required another element too. "The personal is political" is no simple feminist slogan; it has evolved into a legal norm and a journalistic axiom. In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the phrase meant that child-care and housework should be equalized, that women had the right to orgasm and not to be beaten. As politicians became more suspect and journalists more suspicious, "the personal is political" evolved into 1987's question of Gary Hart, "Have you ever committed adultery?" After Hart's crash and burn came the live TV spectacle of Anita Hill's testimony against Clarence Thomas, when the Senate Judiciary Committee in its majesty decided that charges of sexual harassment were vastly more relevant to the question of his fitness for a court position than Thomas' claim that he had never discussed Roe v. Wade. The spreading inquisition into sexual conduct in the workplace led not only to the right-wing mobilization behind Paula Jones but to the principle that a man's prior sexual conduct was admissible in civil sex-harassment cases when a woman's was not - which led, in turn, to Clinton's decision to give his enemies a mighty sword at his deposition in Paula Jones' lawsuit. In a hard-breathing political culture, the spirit of moral absolutism had attached itself to the cause of women.

For years now, in other words, the firestorm of the culture wars has been burning up the oxygen of political dispute. Clinton was ripe for the picking. "One of the reasons this story exploded in January," Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief Doyle McManus told me, "is that when the story first came up, every investigative reporter had a boxful of related stories" about Clinton's dalliances. Still, one might think the media's relentlessness a bit much for an aggregation of individuals not especially renowned for highfalutin family morals. In recent years, at least three editors of major newspapers have left their wives of twenty-plus years without public disgrace. But of course they did not, so far as is known, lie or fudge under oath. They did not (usually) dally with employees. No special prosecutor prosecuted them. So with a lot of huffing and puffing about public morality, they could ready the pillories in good conscience. And so the vigilantes of Washington bent over backwards for months, professing to be shocked, shocked by office sex, deal-making, and corner-cutting.

Why Bite the Hand that Leaks?

Since the maiden issue of Brill's Content, there can be no rational doubt that Starr and his deputies were the main unattributed sources who kept Clinton reeling for the better part of a year. Brill made a few trivial mistakes, but he was right on the main point - that Starr's office leaked from the start. Whether Starr violated the law, as seems obvious, will in the end depend upon the meaning of words like "information" and "release." But the press, as leakee, colluded, and the collusion begins long before Lewinsky. The watchdogs dutifully carried Starr's leaks about indicting Hillary Rodham Clinton over Whitewater matters. They lifted no eyebrows when Starr's Little Rock grand jury folded last May without indicting Hillary. While Federal Judge Norma Holloway Johnson was investigating White House charges that Starr's office illegally leaked, that investigation was not especially interesting to the press. When this fall she found prima facie evidence of illegal leaks to ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, the Times, the Post and Newsweek - against secrecy rules encompassing not only "the direct revelation of grand jury transcripts" but also prosecutors' disclosure of "the identities of witnesses or jurors, the substance of testimony, [or] the strategy or direction of the investigation," the story landed on page A9 of the Times, albeit with a tease on page A1. We have come a long way from the time when Jack Newfield could call White House reporters "stenographers with amnesia." The stenographers moved on to the Office of the Independent Counsel.

Starr mastered the press in ways that any big-city prosecutor would envy - or perhaps mastery is not the right concept, common interest being the point. Leaking away, the prosecutor set traps for potential witnesses and polluted his Washington grand jury for months, not incidentally grabbing the attention of the House of Representatives that is, in effect, the grandest jury of all. While editors occasionally denied, for public consumption, that they were stalking Watergate II, the magnitude and the intensity of their coverage suggests that they thought they had in their sights another president fairly begging to be brought down. One reason most of the press volunteered as Starr's echo chamber is that he offered a lot of the stuff Washington reporters crave. "The story was about Starr launching an investigation," Isikoff told me. "At some point, you're acting as a censor if you say we're not going to pursue credible allegations," meaning Starr's.

Remember the infamous "talking points," much bruited about at the beginning of the scandal? Here lies one egregious example of the media running unquestioningly with the OIC's leaks. Newsweek on Jan. 22 had Starr doubting, given the legalistic prose, that Lewinsky was the sole author of the document. Virtually every major news outlet leaped to speculate that the fine hand of Vernon Jordan or Bruce Lindsay or another lawyer in the White House cabal was detectable. A tattoo of repetition made the speculation seem a no-brainer, an assumption that reached its zenith when Chris Matthews crowed on CNBC that "Monica is not protecting Bruce Lindsey, and not Bob Bennett, and not Vernon Jordan, but the person who gave her the talking points may in fact have been ... the President." No fewer than four versions of the "official" memo surfaced in the fray. While the media hyped this document as a "smoking gun," the final Starr report referred to it all of twice. It never made the list of possible grounds for impeachment, nor was it used as evidence in the charge of obstruction of justice.

Of course, once Starr's report had arrived at the House, on the Internet, and everywhere else, Starr was no longer useful to the media. All his Monica data were presumably now in plain view. Now - only now - did Starr himself become a subject for independent investigation. The Times' Oct. 4 front-page investigation of Starr's methods, by Don van Natta Jr. and Jill Abramson, was the bellwether. The wind was changing. Even Newsweek got into the new act with a coy cover, Sept. 28, clucking, "How Low Can It Go?" over a simulated supermarket tabloid, "The Starr" - the same Newsweek that, back in January, had agreed to hold back Isikoff's first story at the behest of Starr deputy Jackie Bennett, Jr., because Starr was working a sting against Monica Lewinsky with the connivance of Linda Tripp.

But the Liberal Media!

The anti-Clinton animus of the bluntly right-wing media requires no special explanation. One expects the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times, Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard, George Will and William Kristol (on a single show, yet!) to hammer away at the dope-non-inhaling, draft-dodging adulterer - not only because they sniff a whiff of the 1960s they despise, but because they hate the Clintonians for their success in borrowing some of the conservative program. It is not remarkable that Republican flasks carry corrosive acid.

The more interesting question is, How to understand the venom of The New York Times' editorial page editor Howell Raines, once closely aligned with the civil rights movement, who on Sept. 22, after months of relentless attacks and Clinton's repeated apologies after he finally 'fessed up, could still write: "President Clinton continues to demand that we, as a people, endorse his lying." This editorial Ahab (as Joan Didion rightly says) of the Clintonian white whale has made the nice judgment that Starr is guilty of "legal klutziness" while declaring that "whatever Mr. Starr's failings, they will never achieve the grand malignancy of Mr. Clinton's folly and miscalculations." Klutziness! Where was Raines' equivalent outrage when grand jury testimony was leaked and leaked again and finally released on-line to a leering world? How to explain the ferocity of pundits like Tim Russert and Chris Matthews?

In 1987, when Ronald Reagan insisted that there was no arms-for-hostages deal, and repeatedly couldn't recall details, pundits and editorialists did not leap to their drums to pound away for impeachment. They did not speculate about resignation from day one when a president they knew to be either rampantly deceitful or incipiently senile told them the sun was shining when they had their own umbrellas out. Reporters regularly overestimated Reagan's popularity. His famous Teflon wasn't born, it was sprayed - by politicians and journalists.

By contrast, some left-of-center reporters despise Clinton because he repeatedly sided with the New Democrats. He took the Democratic Leadership Council's advice on welfare. Even reporters like Joe Klein who approved centrist policies and had been swept off their feet by Clinton in '92 turned against him with the fury of scorned lovers. They saw a lot of character not to like. But more important is what Jefferson Morley of The Washington Post calls "a conservative bias of liberal media... They bend over backwards to prove that they're not liberal." Backwards indeed. Ronald Reagan certainly benefited from this self-spin. The Washington press corps, styling itself rambunctious, was in fact gullible. They frequently disliked Reagan's politics but harbored a sense of him as the nation's benign paterfamilias. The establishment press believed it had brought down Johnson and Nixon, dragged down America's image with them, and with America struggling to stand tall after a decade of humiliations, damned if they were going to be responsible for another regicide. As Post reporter Lou Cannon said in 1983, "Everybody wants our president to be up on a pedestal a little."

Illustration by Joshua Barlow
But not Bill Clinton. Slick Willie, Bubba, the slob who eats off other people's plates, or the Good Old Boy cannot be mistaken for any reporter's dad. Rather, he's everybody's brother, a bumbler to boot, and with his Big Macs and Gennifer Flowers it has been hard to imagine him on any pedestal. From the start, he inspired not only affection but suspicion, and little awe. He was Southern, like Jimmy Carter, another scorned interloper - an out-of-towner surrounded by out-of-towners (read hicks) and kids. Southerners like Howell Raines must be embarrassed by Clinton as much as Hollywood loves him. If his back-country ways weren't bad enough, he didn't romance reporters or their employers - at least not as much as they thought their due. He was suspicious of them - were they not overplaying Whitewater? He offended them in little ways and big. They took umbrage.

The consummate hedonist, Clinton also reminded his agemates of what troubled them about themselves. As Joe Klein put it to Tim Russert on CNBC (Sept. 19), "The things that we are most upset with Bill Clinton about are the things that I think we're most upset with ourselves about. And there are three counts in ... this kind of spiritual impeachment. One, he put marketing over substance, which is something that we in the media are very, very, very conscious of ... Count number two, the sexual revolution ... Most of us who have lived through the last 30 years, including a lot of the people who are writing these pompous editorials, have done things that we are not proud of, and by casting out Bill Clinton, maybe we cast out some of our own demons. But the third thing ... is in some ways ... the saddest and ... the most profound, and that is there's a sense in Bill Clinton's generation, our generation, that we skated, that we cut corners, that we got off easy, and man, if there was ever a guy who skated and cut corners and fudged and got off easy, it was Bill Clinton." Purge him.

Catch a Rising Starr

Ken Starr was something else again - the counter-Sixties incarnate. And the Post in particular hitched itself to him. Journalists are frequently squires in search of knights. There's nothing especially odd or sinister about their symbiosis with sources: Careers are routinely made by attaching oneself to newsworthy subjects. This can be done negatively - the way Dan Rather was cast as Richard Nixon's nemesis. But it can also be done positively, by placing one's journalistic organ at the service of information providers. Prosecutors are particularly serviceable. And by conspicuous contrast with Bill Clinton, ever since his appointment as independent prosecutor in August 1994, Kenneth Starr has been a master of media. "Starr assiduously courted the media in Washington," says freelance writer Mollie Dickenson. "He developed friends there, particularly Susan Schmidt of The Washington Post." Reportorial coziness with Starr extends far beyond the usual backscratching. According to Howard Kurtz, White House reporters "liked Starr and his prosecutors and tended to give them the benefit of the doubt."

Outside easy public view, Starr even received an unusual testimonial from one journalist whose role in reporting the rolling scandal since Whitewater has been substantial. Whitewater promoter Jim McDougal and ABC News producer Chris Vlasto became friends during Vlasto's Whitewater investigations. In Arkansas Mischief, his memoir with the Boston Globe's Curtis Wilkie, McDougal recounted how, in 1996, he was awaiting sentencing after having been indicted on 18 felony counts by Starr's Little Rock grand jury. Depressed, he told Vlasto he was afraid of dying in jail. "'Listen, Jim,' Chris said, 'you don't have to go out this way. If you walk in to see Ken Starr, he'll greet you with open arms.' He recommended that I at least talk with the independent counsel." I asked Vlasto whether McDougal's account was accurate. "In general, absolutely," he told me. "The gist of the story is true."

Vlasto, who is Jackie Judd's producer on the ABC Evening News and also produces for "Nightline," has been relentless in his pursuit of White House scandals. This does not, of course, mean that there is anything wrong with his fact-finding. The fact that he has written for The Wall Street Journal is not necessarily here or there. Neither is the fact that the organ in which he profiled Jim McDougal is the conservative Weekly Standard. Vlasto is entitled to his opinions, and entitled to advise a friend. I asked him whether he had become part of the story by virtue of his conversations with McDougal, in particular his advice. After a very long pause, he said: "I was acting as a journalist. It was a matter of my relation with my sources."

A Starr-Struck Establishment

Leakworthiness is not the only reason the media establishment liked Starr - Judge Starr, as he was called. Starr's Washington reputation for probity was prime. In a city that monitors the rise and fall of reputation as attentively as others monitor pork bellies, a reputation for honor is worth a lot. To Starr's non-Republican friends in high places, it surely was not irrelevant that Clinton is both trailer park and Oxford - a class pincer that cuts Georgetown from both sides. The Clintons, like the Carters before them, didn't play proper court. Sally Quinn, partygiver extraordinaire, wrote scornfully of a president who "is not of this town and who will be gone in less than three years, if that ... The establishment rallies to preserve its institutions against interlopers who might corrode or undermine them." On "60 Minutes," she sniffed that the Clintons didn't even own their own home. As recently as Nov. 2, the day before the election, Quinn wrote at length in the Post that Establishment Washington - "they," she calls them - have been "outraged by the president's behavior. They feel Washington has been brought into disrepute by the actions of the president" - not by those of Judge Starr. In their eyes, in a contrast Quinn does not make, Reagan did not bring Washington into disrepute when he lied about Iran-contra, nor did Bush when, on Christmas Eve, 1992, he pardoned six high administration officials, four of whom had already been convicted of perjury and withholding information from Congress. Quinn quotes Post columnist David Broder: Clinton "came in here and he trashed the place, and it's not his place." Quinn leaves no doubt as to whose place she and her friends believe it to be.

Meanwhile, how did Starr secure his comfort level? In 1991, the sociologist Michael Schudson, interviewing Bob Woodward, was surprised when Woodward told him that, as a watershed in the history of journalism, Watergate was less important than a 1987 Court of Appeals decision in a libel suit involving The Washington Post. The suit in question was filed against the paper by Mobil Oil CEO William P. Tavoulareas and his son, and the Court of Appeals, reversing an earlier decision by a three-judge Court of Appeals panel, found for the Post in April 1987. Two months later, that decision was upheld by the Supreme Court in what Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee hailed as a great "victory for responsible journalism." The author of the Court of Appeals decision, as the reader will by now have guessed, was Judge Kenneth W. Starr.

The reader had to guess, most likely, because reporting of this fact has been next to nonexistent in publications for non-specialists. In February 1998, Mollie Dickenson noted it in Salon, adding that Ben Bradlee had spoken effusively of Starr in public. I found a C-SPAN tape of an American Bar Association meeting on February 7, 1997. There, pre-Monica, commenting on what he called the "swamp" of Whitewater, which he thought quite unlike Watergate in either clarity or gravity, Bradlee added about Judge Starr: "He's a man for whom The Washington Post has this tremendous respect because he finally got rid of a $2 million libel suit against the Post, and as far as I'm concerned he can do no wrong." To be sure, Bradlee, a Whitewater skeptic, went on to say; "They could get an indictment against anyone they wanted, I think, and they haven't got it. It isn't there." Nonetheless, the matter of Starr's decision in the Tavoulareas case has never been reported in a general-interest national medium. It suggests an atmosphere. Bradlee told me that now, as for Starr, "I don't know if I have any [opinion] or not," and that as for Clinton, "I don't think he should be hung at midnight."

Bradlee's longtime presumption in favor of the judicious Judge Starr was representative. On Nov. 2, after Judge Johnson had found prima-facie evidence of Starr's illegal leaks, Bradlee's wife, Sally Quinn, could still write: "Starr is not seen by many Washington insiders as an out-of-control prudish crusader. Starr is a Washington insider, too. He has lived and worked here for years. He had a reputation as a fair and honest judge. He has many friends in both parties. Their wives are friendly with one another and their children go to the same schools. He is seen as someone who is operating under a legal statute."

There Goes the Eastern Seaboard

Consistently, since January, roughly 60 percent of the polled public has said that Clinton lied, but that Starr was unfair, that the press dwelt too much on the scandal and was wrong to rely on anonymous sources. This remarkable stability in public opinion can't be reduced to partisanship, since more people think the press unfair to Clinton than voted for him. In a Media Studies Center poll conducted Sept. 25 to Oct. 1, only 18 percent rated the ethical standards of newspaper reporters "high" or "very high" - tied with lawyers and corporate executives.

Faced with disgruntlement on this scale, media statesmen are thrown back on defensive mantras: The story is taking place "out there." Don't blame the storyteller. Don't shoot the messenger. If the public is fed up, that testifies to the press' professionalism, as a patient's wince tells the doctor that he's poked the right place. There is also the resort to high-minded hauteur: Sooner or later, the people will wise up and follow their opinion leaders - they'd better. Professionals have responsibilities, after all. Does the surgeon ask the patient where to cut? If people hate them, this must be hypocrisy (the great unwashed who say they want to scrub out our mouths are watching and reading our stuff) or tribute (we tell people what they need to know, and the hell with the consequences).

But sooner has turned to later and the public remains steadfastly unimpressed. Americans, who revel in smarm as much as anyone retain a grip on their sense of proportion. Of course there are enough viewers and page-turners to kick circulation up. Newsweek's Jan. 26 issue, Lewinsky I, more than doubled the magazine's average newsstand sales to 350,000. Yet on the whole, the public seems to know the difference between the delectation they feel as consumers of spectacle and the gravitas they know should be brought to bear on matters of state. They know, at least some of the time, the difference between what they delight in knowing (or clucking over) and what they need to know to govern themselves. Barry Goldwater, were he alive, would bask in prophetic glory. In 1961, he proposed to chop off the Eastern Seaboard. Today, no axe would be required, for the Washington-New York media brain stem has cut itself loose from the rest of the country by its own hand. For the better part of a year, watchdogs and pundits have nipped at the presidential underwear, exposed it, analyzed it, and in the process stained themselves. The Washington news establishment's investment in the tawdry story has contributed to the nation's disinvestment in them - disgust, anger, and a limp feeling that the national weal has been abducted by aliens.

Public anger at the press is the good news - the only good news during the months of this miserable spectacle that brought back the pillory and the stocks as instruments of jurisprudence, permitted a Javertian prosecutor to paralyze democratic government, and turned American politics and journalism into an international joke, or worse.

Recessional

The day before the House Judiciary Committee voted to pursue impeachment hearings, I passed near the Vietnam Memorial on the Washington Mall in a taxi. Over the radio, some congressman was blaring on about how the moral fabric of the country is worn thin by lies. Over at the Capitol, scorched-earth moralists were hard at work on their slow-motion coup d'etat. I stared at the wall of some 58,000 names, thought of three million Vietnamese names not engraved anywhere, thought of the presidential evasions, misleadings, and outright lies that produced that catastrophe, thought of the Congresses that voted again and again to finance a war as devastating as it was undeclared. I thought about lies and lies, lies of consequence and lies of adultery, lethal lies and sex-covering lies. I thought of the press as a scandal of its own. For the hundredth time during these miserable months, I thought of attorney Joseph Welch's question to Senator Joseph McCarthy: "Have you no sense of decency?"

Carl Bromley and Jennifer Kelley provided research assistance for this article.

~Todd Gitlin


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