Newsreal: Blowback

Pundits who have been pontificating about President Clinton's alleged adultery may soon find their own morals coming under scrutiny.

Topics: Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, ABC, Washington Post, White House,

The next tasty treat in the media’s feeding frenzy over President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky may be the media themselves. But it may make some of them, especially those who have taken to flights of moral outrage, gag on their own punditry.

Maureen Dowd, moralizer-in-chief at the New York Times, is already having very bad dreams about the possibility. Warning of a “sexual Armageddon,” she told readers in her column on Wednesday to be prepared for the spotlight to be turned on the illicit behavior of some of her colleagues. The White House, she avers, echoing rumors floated by former Clinton strategist George Stephanopoulos, “is considering the ‘explosive’ strategy of opening up every sexual closet in the city — congressmen, reporters, pundits.”

If that were to happen, who might be among the first to feel some heat on the matter? How about Newsweek columnist and ABC-TV commentator George Will? In a recent column on the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, Will wrote:

“Having vulgarians like the Clintons conspicuous in government must further coarsen American life. This is already apparent in the emergence of a significant portion of the public that almost preens about supporting the Clintons because of the vulgarity beneath their pantomime of domesticity.”

Will adds: “He [Clinton] has caused a pain he does not feel: The sense millions of Americans have that something precious has been vandalized. The question is, Who should come next to scrub from a revered institution the stain of the vulgarians?”

If Dowd’s fears are correct, then the “oppo research” department at the White House has probably already unearthed the January 1987 issue of Washingtonian magazine that described Will’s “off again, on again” relationship with his then-wife, Madeleine. At the time, there was considerable gossip in media circles about the matter. A subsequent issue of Washingtonian reported that a pile of Will’s belongings appeared one day in front of his Chevy Chase, Md., home with a sign on top that read, “Take it somewhere else, buster.”

Salon attempted to contact Will about the story, leaving a message with his secretary, but Will did not return the call. However, Amnon Dankner, a former Washington correspondent for the Israeli daily Haaretz, who lived near the Wills, told Salon that he saw both the pile of belongings and the sign. Soon after the alleged incident, Will and his wife separated, then later divorced.



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Of course it’s Will’s right to remain silent on such a personal matter, a right that he grants the embattled president — up to a point. “Clinton has been guided by the rule that silence is a difficult argument to refute.” But Will also cautions that “staying silent, like invoking the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination … invites an invidious reference.”

Others argue that it is wrong to compare members of the press to politicans, the elected custodians of the national trust.
But much of the press, especially in Washington, has become a virtual arm of government. Some, like Will, have openly crossed back and forth between being a moral commentator and a partisan political advisor.

In the take-no-prisoners atmosphere that has descended on the capital, questions might well be raised about Will in this latter role. As was reported widely at the time, in practice sessions for the 1980 presidential debates, Will secretly prepared Republican candidate Ronald Reagan, using a stolen copy of President Jimmy Carter’s debate briefing book. That Will saw himself more as a partisan Republican than a journalist who should have reported on the theft may be defensible: The lines between punditry and partisanship have been blurred since the days of Walter Lippmann.

What is a little harder to justify ethically is what Will did after the debate was over: Concealing the fact that he had prepped Reagan, Will, in his role as an ABC commentator, joined the network’s televised post-mortem of the debate. Pretending he had heard Reagan’s answers for the first time, Will declared him the winner.

But media pundits like Will may not be the only ones caught in the cross-fire of a war launched by White House attack dogs. Some of those summoned to sit in judgment on President Clinton, should he be impeached, will also have cause for concern. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, may have to explain all over again why he tried to get his first wife to sign divorce papers as she lay in hospital recovering from cancer.

A more immediate target is Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., who has publicly raised the idea of impeaching the president, even before the Lewinsky scandal broke. A recent profile of Barr in the Washington Post cited a Georgia newspaper’s description of Barr “licking whipped cream from the chests of two buxom women” at a Leukemia Society luncheon. The Washington Post profile also notes that Barr, an anti-gay crusader who supported the 1995 Defense of Marriage Act, is himself thrice-married and that his divorces became issues in his 1994 campaign.

Such airing of dirty linen fills many in the nation’s capital with disgust as well as dread. “This is just the latest step down on the Clinton moral escalator,” Dowd wrote in her Wednesday column. Embattled supporters in the White House bunker might call it payback. Observers of military expeditions that have been launched without thinking through the consequences might call it blowback.

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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