Democracy on life support

The cynical Starr hearings were to their Watergate precursors as Jack Kevorkian is to Mother Teresa.

Published November 25, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

This past week, 13 and a half months early, the millennium came to TV, in case you weren't paying attention -- and if you weren't, it's to your credit. This assumes you believe the millennium will be not the Rapture, accompanied by celestial chimes, but an abysmal journey down the drain of time, accompanied by a Whitney Houston-Mariah Carey duet. Millennial-TV began as Kangaroo Court-TV last Thursday and ended as Snuff-TV Sunday night, all the imagination and integrity and courage sucked out of our age like oxygen, leaving only a vacuum occupied by an electronic nation of the undead or, thanks to "60 Minutes," the dead, population of one.

I spent half of Sunday in dread of the "60 Minutes" program, having gotten
it into my head that, for the purpose of writing this column, journalistic responsibility obligated me to watch Jack Kevorkian kill someone too pain-wracked and doomed to think clearly. Since "60 Minutes" happens to follow "Siskel and Ebert" in the TV market where I live, I figured this would surely put me in the appropriate thumbs-up/thumbs-down mood. But truth be told, by Sunday evening the idea of watching another minute of any sort of TV was almost unbearable, though to say I spent last Thursday watching the House Judiciary Committee perform a Kevorkian on my country would only be more cheap melodrama at a time when we hardly need another moment of it.

Our country didn't die last Thursday, of course, because the people are
smarter than the Congress. But if you did happen to watch Ken Starr's testimony before the House committee holding hearings on the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and if you also happened to be around 25 years ago during the Watergate hearings, you couldn't help discerning a difference or two. And if you weren't around 25 years ago you may find it hard to believe that once there was a time when momentous matters concerning democracy and due process weren't just seen by politicians as another opportunity to try to score politically, and when actually taking into account the best interests of the country wasn't just for suckers.

The Democrats of the present committee have made clear by now their resolute unwillingness to come to grips with the fact that the chief executive of the land is probably guilty of a felony in the form of perjury before a grand jury, and thereby has betrayed his oath of office. The Republicans of the present committee have made clear by now their resolute unwillingness to come to grips with the fact that virtually all the charges currently facing the president have been borne out of an investigation that has been, at best, zealous and unjust, and at worst vaguely totalitarian. There. I just saved you 15 hours in case you were so unhinged as to have taped the fiasco and were planning to curl around the fire with it some wintry night.

In the next day's newspaper, Bob Barr of Georgia, a member of the committee,
was quoted bemoaning the lack of objectivity on the part of his fellow Republicans who have indicated they won't support impeachment. "It's very frustrating to see my colleagues take such an irresponsible position," Barr told the Los Angeles Times. "We haven't even presented all the evidence." This paragon of open-mindedness is the same congressman who called for the president's impeachment before the Lewinsky scandal even broke. Presumably Barr originally believed impeachment was justified by the array of other scandals allegedly involving the president, including Whitewater and matters relating to the missing FBI files and the firings at the White House Travel Office. These were the matters that Starr was appointed to investigate in the first place, and that his testimony last Thursday mentioned just long enough to allow that the president in fact has been cleared of them, apparently at some mysterious, unspoken moment in the middle of some elusive, unspecified night that we can only guess happened a week ago or a month ago or a year ago or three.

To be fair to Barr, he may have slipped out to the men's room around the
time Starr was muttering this particular aside, and therefore would have missed it. He would have missed it because Starr didn't feel compelled to elaborate, at least not to the extent of a 445-page referral; and if Barr didn't hear it from Starr himself, there was an excellent chance he wasn't going to hear it at all, because the media said almost nothing about it. Now, I got my master's degree in journalism at UCLA back in the waning years of the Industrial Age, so we must acknowledge my opinion is by now irrelevant in the matter of journalistic ethics and what used to be called "hard news." But allow me to explain that this romantic notion of "hard news" had to do with information of a quaintly factual nature -- "of or pertaining to facts," as the dictionary defines it -- either affecting people's lives on a large scale or otherwise warranting their interest in an extraordinary way. Since there was only a single piece of hard news that came out of last Thursday's marathon, in all my naiveté I honestly woke to Friday morning's front page expecting to see at least one tiny little headline somewhere that read, "Starr clears Clinton of all other charges."

There was no such headline. There was virtually nothing about the
exoneration to be found in anything but the fine print. In the delirium of words concerning Starr's admirably becalmed demeanor, the only real news of the day was barely mentioned on the nightly news shows; and on this past Sunday morning's talk shows it wasn't mentioned at all, except by the president's lawyer in conversation with Wolf Blitzer on CNN and, in a rare outburst of professionalism, Tim Russert on "Meet the Press." The wise men and wise woman at the roundtable of ABC's "This Week" didn't speak a syllable of it. They did cluck-cluck a lot about the journalistic disgrace of CBS's upcoming "60 Minutes" broadcast, and Sam Donaldson lectured the country yet again about how it was going to have to come to terms with the president's wrongdoing sooner or later; like much of the rest of the media, Donaldson routinely wonders in bewilderment at the "disconnect" between what the president has done and how the nihilistic, selfish and shallow American public has responded to it, as though they haven't been coming to terms with Bill Clinton for six years now. As though they haven't processed all the information about Bill and Monica and reached the uneasy conclusion that -- in a process where the only resolution offered is the constitutional equivalent of capital punishment -- the president's transgression is simply not the constitutional equivalent of a capital crime.

The Judiciary Committee show last Thursday was not without its redeeming
figures. As it happens, the two who most reminded me of those congressmen and congresswomen from the Watergate hearings 25 years ago were sitting at the far end of the lower row, so far to the side as to always be off-screen. Both were conservative Republicans. It remains to be seen what Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Mary Bono of California decide on impeachment; they may very well vote for it. But whether one would agree with such a conclusion (I, for the most part, wouldn't) or whether one agrees with their politics (I, for the most part, don't), one got the feeling both were actually grappling with an anguished sense of duty as they construed it. As a citizen-politician who finds herself in the House by virtue of a tree, Bono seems to be trying to cast the case against the president in the context of Real Life as she's lived it and as she knows others to live it, while Graham appears truly haunted by the single argument no liberal Democrat has yet refuted with any persuasiveness: that in the America of our dreams, no man is above the law.

Anyway, this is what it's come down to: Fearing for America, my best hope
is the widow of the guy who sang "I Got You Babe." But after all, as time went by, "I Got You Babe" turned out to be a better song than we thought it was 30 years ago, and as time goes by, Mary Bono may turn out to be a better congresswoman than we thought when she was elected; and at any rate, however she votes, the televised execution of the Clinton presidency will be somewhat less irresistible to the country than the televised execution of terminal patients now appears to be. Truth is, in the end I didn't watch "60 Minutes" on Sunday night anyway. I shirked my journalistic obligation. Not only did I decide that watching the program out of a sense of journalistic obligation was to effectively endorse whatever sick horseshit about journalistic obligation was used to justify the show in the first place, I decided just writing about the show at any serious length, even in condemnation, was somehow an endorsement as well -- further fueling the very controversy the program so cravenly and successfully pursued.

Maybe that's just me letting myself off the hook. But if we all let
ourselves off the hook on this one, then no one would have watched Sunday night, and how bad would that be? The next time Jack Kevorkian talks about someone's right to "die with dignity," let's not waste a single moment belaboring the obvious absurdity of a definition of dignified death that includes a whirring video camera a few feet away. This assumes it's not too late anyway. This assumes that, in TV time, Dec. 31, 1999, isn't already here, and that Whitney Houston-Mariah Carey duet you think you hear in the background, coming from someone else's radio, isn't really in your own head, and getting closer.

By Steve Erickson

Steve Erickson's new novel, "The Sea Came in at Midnight," will be published next spring by Bard/Avon.

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Bill Clinton