Monica 2: This time, it's for the money

It's a very, very merry Testimoniday in punditland, as the talking heads pick over what's left of the Bill-Monica-Ken scandal.


James Poniewozik
August 18, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

You know there is trouble in the land when President Clinton shows up early for an
appointment, and when he gives a brief speech. His questioning in front of Ken Starr's grand jury began at
12:59 Monday afternoon, one minute ahead of schedule. And at 10 p.m., he
gave a speech that was over by 10:04.

In that speech, Clinton looked into the eyes of the American people
and said -- oh, but you knew what he was going to say before it happened,
didn't you? "This afternoon in this room ..." "Protecting my family ..."
"Important work to do ..." Virtually every talking point in the speech was
hashed out in the press weeks ago -- you could have written this speech
last week, except that, naive you, you might have used a word like "lied" or
"sorry" rather than "misled" or "regret."

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And the pre-prep continued tonight; by 8 p.m., the slogan "Candor, Contrition,
and Closure" simultaneously appeared on the chat shows as if by airborne
leaflet. (And don't you just know that catch phrase was vetted to avoid
choosing an unfortunate initial? "This speech has to be about Pain,
Presidentiality, and Peace." "Yeah, and Puss--" "OK, cancel those faxes!")

Over the past few weeks, every wag in the press has taken a stab at writing a
dramatic speech for the president: Say it's none of their business. Say
you'll resign. Say you're seeking help. The subtext to all these suggestions
is: For once in your life, do something unexpected. Say something that wasn't
tested in focus groups and the op-eds and advisors' sessions. We got instead
"A critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part." Did the man
miss a jump shot? For all its petulance toward Starr, it was a speech to
end no speeches, leaving John Ashcroft and James Carville and Bay Buchanan
and Barney Frank batting the same rhetorical back-court shots that they
had been before and will be, presumably, until the end of time. You want
closure? You can't handle closure!

A different sort of closure, then: The checks are in the mail -- Chris',
Keith's, mine. And yours too. The Dow Jones industrial average closed up
nearly 150 points. It was an excellent, excellent day in the
United States of America.

Let it never be said that the president has no effect on the economy.
By setting a grand-jury testimony date two weeks in advance, President
Clinton not only turned the media into a massive focus group, airing
out every possible stonewalling tactic and pre-scripting his
confession down to the last comma, he in effect decreed a national
holiday -- Testimoniday -- and opened a punditry Olympiad that would
help finance second homes and midlife-crisis car purchases up and down
the Northeast corridor.

So the last two weeks have been the "Speed 2" of news squawk: Like
most sequels, a joyless exercise of the will, promising more loot and
less fun for all the Sandra Bullocks involved -- red-faced, spittle-spewing Chris
Matthews, cagey John Gibson, squeaky, indomitable Arianna Huffington.
Again, we trotted out the presidential historians, poll takers and sex
columnists. Again, we got the clichéd subplot involving the
mustachioed Arab villain, raising the specter of America entering its
second war with Iraq to be fought over precious fluids. And again, a
nation huddled by the TV, steeling itself for the horrifying and
unprecedented prospect of William Jefferson Clinton telling the truth.


But enough about the leadership of the free world, a turning point in
the history of America, blah blah blah. This is Web journalism, after
all. Let's talk about me.

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This is only the second column I've written for Salon on the Clinton-Lewinsky
sex scandal, and in that respect I am an atypical professional and a
poor provider for my family.

This time, I was asked to write pretty much the same sort of piece I
wrote in January; I felt burned out on the exhaustive, microscopic
coverage and was convinced I had nothing to add to the subject. So I
wholeheartedly said yes.

And in that respect I am entirely typical. For while commentaries on
the Lewinsky scandal inevitably riff on what it is "about" -- sex,
perjury, character, politics, privacy, media ethics, the Constitution, the Bible --
they are all wrong.

The Monica Lewinsky scandal is about getting paid.

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Wisely leading the pack in getting what he can out of his notoriety
while the gettin's good is Matt Drudge. Anyone who says that new cable
networks like Fox are pushing amateur public-access programming off
the airwaves has obviously not seen Drudge's talk show. A hat in search
of a television personality, Drudge has always been best at looking
hard-boiled, and once you actually hear him fumble nervously through
an interview the magic is gone. His modus operandi is to stammer out a
question -- "Congressman Traficant, are you ... um ... what do you
foresee for the next couple of ... ah ... months?" -- then smile
triumphantly, as if he had just extemporized "J'Accuse," and lean back
rakishly in the Sam Spadey office set that Fox has installed him in.
You half expect him to knock back a swig of Jim Beam for effect.

Among the mouthpieces laying into Clinton on Drudge was Ann Coulter,
the author of "High Crimes and Misdemeanors" and yet another
hard-bodied soldier in the fembot army of young anti-Clintonites in
miniskirts. Is the GOP cloning these women in a desert compound
somewhere? You have to wonder if this isn't some sort of psychosexual
torture intended to whip Clinton into a guilt-ridden state of
libidinal mania -- every time he turns on the television, there's some
foxy blond skirt wagging her finger, like some femme-fatale
school principal out of Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" video. ("That's
right, Ms. Ingraham ... Ah've been a baaad boy ... Ah must be
punished ... Betty! Send me in another one of those interns!")

But let's hear it above all for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the
old-timers who made a spry, better-late-than-never effort to inject
themselves into the Monica circuit, arguing for the superiority of the
real scandal that they uncovered a quarter-century ago, while
walking uphill through six feet of snow. The nation needs to wake up,
the now-superseded reporters argued, before we run into a
constitutional train wreck over a petty, irrelevant lie, a "moment of
national madness." Which is all well and good for this rich and venerable pair to say. But if the media were to suddenly develop a sense of proportion about Zippergate, how would Michael Isikoff and the rest afford to move in next door to Woodward in Georgetown?

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Mom is replacing the cab driver as the great local-color cliché of
American journalism. Any chatterer with a mother living in the
heartland now apparently believes he has a pipeline to the secret
heart of America, and thus we're periodically treated to five seconds
of homespun wisdom that Sonny Boy managed to speed-dial up in between
the amuse-bouche and the appetizer. In USA Today, Des Moines Register
editor Dennis Ryerson's mom is sick of Monica; here in Salon, Ned
Stafford's mom, whom "the pulse of the real America flows through,"
calls Ken Starr a "foolish man." (If your mother happens also to drive
a taxi, it's a better career head start than a Medill scholarship.)

But in times of crisis we all have our jobs: For those of us flying
coach, that job is Keepin' it Real. Thus the cable networks put on
their gas masks and sallied out into the streets for the vox populi
over the weekend. A CNN news crew went to all the trouble of lugging
camera equipment down several flights so as to halt Manhattan traffic interviewing riders on city
buses. A poor MSNBC drudge drew the short straw and interviewed
novelty T-shirted Weebles at a Wisconsin fair: "As much as I don't
like being on television," one woman ventured, she was nonetheless
willing to deliver herself of a three-minute screed on the president's
morals.

But then her job was to be hesitant about appearing on television;
that's part of Keepin' it Real, just like the caller to a Fox show who
self-deprecatingly labeled herself as "a real American" -- i.e., one
of those average schlemiels -- to establish Main Street cred. Who says
the media condescends to us? We're well trained enough now to
condescend to ourselves.

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One of the most prominent winners in the scandal, MSNBC anchor Keith
Olbermann, has made a point of protesting his success lately, publicly
stating that he's sick, sick of the relentless scandal hunt and
recently crankily introducing "our usual long-running story."
Nonetheless, Testimoniday commercials whipped up by MSNBC trumpeted,
"He's covered this story like nobody else, and no one will bring you
the president's testimony like Keith Olbermann."

Why the ambivalence? Olbermann knows full well that like all
supernovas, this one will leave new stars in its wake; and he knows too
that before January he was just a former ESPN sports jockey on
the cable-news backwater where Soledad O'Brien of "The Site" used to
interview a computer-animated cartoon. But that exposure can only go
so far; since this scandal tends to dirty everyone who touches it (or
at least leaves them a little, you know, sticky), a newsie who wants
to profit from it must tactfully let us know that he feels just
ghastly about the whole ruddy business, truly. Keith Olbermann can
be remembered years hence as that guy who did all those Monica
Lewinsky newscasts, or he can be remembered as that journalist who
detested doing all those Lewinsky newscasts.

Or, of course, he could be remembered as the man who walked away from
a high-profile prime-time slot rather than advance his career by
pimping a story he putatively hates. And I could be remembered as the
queen of freaking Egypt.

But it is not only the thick of hair and fat of Rolodex who have a
financial stake in the Clinton investigation. Clinton's troubles, like
everything else nowadays, are business news, and they have been linked
repeatedly to the wild swings in the stock market. Here's how Carl
Cannon of the National Journal summed up regular-folk sentiment,
echoed throughout the weekend in polls and call-ins, in a National Public Radio
interview: "The economy's never been better, the stock market's never
been better. I'm working, my wife's working, my idiot brother-in-law
who hasn't had a job in two years -- he's working. I got a new boat.
I'm building onto the house. And you want to put all this in jeopardy
over sex?"

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As a member of the cultural elite I know this news is supposed to
cheer me. But it's hard to get all misty over a mercantile,
bean-counting nation wanting to hang onto its leader like a pair of
lucky underwear. Back in those pioneering days of early February, when
we realized the country was ready to absolve a president for
fornication, a press corps of pâté-campagne-eating Rousseaus
proclaimed a new Enlightenment in America. The Puritans are dead! Vive
la France! But we're not tolerant. Nor are we intolerant. It's just
that, if it doesn't affect our 401Ks, we don't give a crap.

We haven't become the French at all. We've become the Swiss.


The scene at the Newseum in Virginia Sunday night resembled purgatory
five minutes after a Delta shuttle crash. Jeff Greenfield was hosting
"a national town meeting" on CNN to discuss what to expect on
Testimoniday and examine the role of the media, but the "town" that
CNN assembled consisted entirely of a bleacherful of reporters and
commentators answering questions from other reporters and commentators
and, very occasionally, viewers. Jesse Jackson speculated on the first
family's spiritual condition; Pat Buchanan reminisced about Watergate;
Greta Van Susteren fixed her hair on camera.

In fact, CNN barely managed to get in an actual caller every half
hour, a situation perhaps exacerbated by the fact that the network
didn't even pony up for a toll-free number. And in a sense it was
perhaps the most honest two hours of journalism we have seen in this
entire saga. Why go through the charade of putting a town in the town
meeting? The voice of the public would just be filtered through the
people filling the bleachers here. Why not simply cut out the
middleman?

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Here was a Beltway pundit's Platonic Republic: an electorate stripped
of both politicians and voters, leaving nothing but talking heads.
Tomorrow, Clinton would admit to sex with Lewinsky, or he wouldn't;
the country would turn on him, or it wouldn't. Like it mattered. In
this chilly looking little forum, we had moved long beyond that: A
presidential mea culpa was not merely a foregone conclusion, it was
already over. This massive Time Warner chorus was ready to start
pursuing the Next New Thing, to look ahead to November and January and
beyond, and to do it in the company of the only people who really
understood them. The media had become interviewer, subject and
audience.

It was paradise.


James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

MORE FROM James Poniewozik

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton Cnn Keith Olbermann Matt Drudge Msnbc

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