A joke too bad to print?

How Sen. John McCain's tasteless two-liner about Chelsea Clinton and Janet Reno was censored out of the nation's leading newspapers.


David Corn
June 25, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

During the last few months, many established media outlets have decided to report innuendo and rumor about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, as long as they have a source they can cite (at least anonymously), or another media player has reported the same.

But this new standard in the practice of journalism seemingly does not extend to other political figures, at least not media darlings like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Earlier this month, at a Republican Senate fund-raiser, McCain told a downright nasty joke making fun of Janet Reno, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton.

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The fact that McCain had made the tasteless joke was reported in major newspapers, as was the vain attempt by his press secretary to initially deny what McCain had done. But in several major newspapers, the joke itself was kept a secret. When McCain subsequently apologized to President Clinton, the Washington Post, in its personality section, noted the apology but said the joke "was too vicious to print."

The Los Angeles Times, in its Life & Style section, provided an oblique rendering of the joke that did not fully convey its ugliness. When Maureen Dowd penned a column in the New York Times about the joke, she wrote that McCain "is so revered by the press that his disgusting jape was largely nudged under the rug." But Dowd chose not to relay the joke, either.

The joke did appear in McCain's hometown paper, the Arizona Republic, and the Associated Press did report the joke in full, so everyone in the press had access to McCain's words. But by censoring themselves, the Post, the Times and others helped McCain deflect flak and preserved his status as a Republican presidential contender.

Salon feels its readers deserve the unadulterated truth. Though no tape of McCain's quip has yet emerged, this is what he reportedly said:

"Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly?
Because her father is Janet Reno."

The joke may be crude, but it pales in comparison with the published details surrounding the presidential sex scandal. McCain's two-liner conveys some interesting insights into what he considers humorous (lesbianism, a young woman's physical appearance), particularly since it was delivered to a Republican crowd. Remember, this is the party that champions pro-family values.

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McCain's lapse in judgment -- admittedly, not as big a lapse as having a sexual relationship with an intern -- may be a significant clue into aspects of his "character," and thus relevant to the voting public. But many voters have been spared this insight, thanks to the censors in the press.

Accordingly, McCain is well-positioned to ride out this messy little episode. Ever since he started championing the anti-tobacco bill (which was torpedoed by his GOP comrades), McCain has been the White House's pet Republican on the Hill. Consequently, the White House played down his Chelsea remarks. McCain is also unusually popular with the media. He gives good quotes; he is outspoken. He takes positions that contradict the Republican leadership. When you talk to McCain, he converses in the manner of a real person, seemingly telling you what he thinks. That is rare among elected officials. Ask him a question and he does not shift into automatic-politician mode, as do most members of Congress.

The former Vietnam POW should escape this matter without serious political harm. In the inevitable magazine profiles of McCain that will be written, there will no doubt be the perfunctory line: "McCain's tendency to speak too freely was proven when he made a distasteful joke at a fund-raiser about the first family and then had to apologize to the president."

But the joke revealed more than a mean streak in a man who would be president. It also exposed how the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times play favorites when reporting the foibles of our leading politicians.

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David Corn

David Corn is the Washington editor of the Nation, a columnist for the New York Press and author of a political suspense novel, "Deep Background" (St.Martin's Press).

MORE FROM David Corn

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Chelsea Clinton Washington, D.c.

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