50 percent off

In the aftermath of President Clinton's acquittal, James Poniewozik casts his jaundiced eye upon the media scene and decides that the era of good feelings ain't gonna start anytime soon.


James Poniwozik
February 17, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

It was one of those days when you couldn't tell the ads in the newspaper from the headlines. "Presidents Day! 50% Off!" cried the banners above washer-dryer sets and double-stuffed mattresses. And indeed, it was the president's day this Friday as President Clinton got 50 percent off, skating on the second article of impeachment by splitting the field straight down the middle, as he has his entire career.

And so we, the professional beneficiaries of the Monica Effect, begin our long, sad journey into ordinary time. Maybe it was just the balmy weather on the Eastern seaboard that day, but the last day of the only news event in living human memory had a sort of elegiac, graduation-day feel, as TV news organizations threw together musical montages of Lewinsky-scandal film clips -- constitutional crisis as video yearbook. There was even, courtesy of National Public Radio, a final exam: The educationally minded broadcast service sent an essay question on "what they have learned during the past year" to eight satirists, correspondents and aspiring Bailey Whites.

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Meanwhile, the 100 senators, like chummy upperclassmen at an exclusive Washington prep school, said warm goodbyes and sauntered off for a rest on the family estate. It must have been with a perverse sense of humor that Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., set the deadline for the vote on the Friday before a Senate recess, affording us the spectacle of a line of senators -- airline tickets in one hand, hailing a taxicab Alanis Morrisette-style with the other hand -- saying they can't wait to get back to "doing the people's business" (a euphemism, I believe, used when a congressman or White House staffer is indisposed in the washroom -- don't even ask what "turning to my legislative agenda" means).

What have we learned over the past year? For one, during the past week, we've learned that the members of the U.S. Senate are sage superbeings whose every vanity must be indulged for the good of the republic. The last few days have been a cavalcade of Senate ass-kissing, a generally weary, grateful consensus that the imperious, secretive decisions of a hundred pompous solons are preferable to messy, bickersome direct democracy and public discussion.

Flattered ceaselessly as an island of comity in a nation gone mad, the Senate has shown us that there are certain things stronger than partisanship, and the greatest of these is the feeling of superiority to one's fellow man. Certainly, the opponents of impeachment who have swelled this magazine's readership may have enjoyed the Senate's considered decision to crap on the House managers, who from Day One it regarded as a truckload of country cousins who showed up at their ancestral home with a dead possum to cook for dinner. But that enjoyment has come at the price of a nostalgic genuflection before an antidemocratic 19th-century process. And unfortunately, the widespread public disparagement of the media enabled senators to vote against public debate on the final vote on the grounds that they'd involuntarily turn into grandstanding buffoons if exposed to the cameras -- only to leave the closed discussion to grandstand before the cameras.

For what have we learned during the past year? That we'd all be better people without a runaway media, an easy criticism that sanctifies a lot of bad faith. But we did see the excesses of the 24-hour news cycle reprised Friday, when the cable news networks were left to cover a red-letter, this-day-in-history event with little news to report. That left them spending hours, for instance, parsing Clinton's terse answer to the "forgiveness" question shouted after his post-trial statement like starving men trying to make dinner out of a kidney bean. On CNN, Wolf Blitzer talked gravely about how Clinton's aides had debated whether he should give the statement as spoken or written: "We'll have to see for sure as we do some reporting over the next couple of hours." With all due respect -- Blitzer has done yeoman's work through most of the scandal -- how 'bout just knocking off and grabbing a brew, Wolf? The nation will survive.

Network analysts and White House pool reporters, conditioned by months of Kremlinology -- What does that tie mean? Will Hillary hold his hand or Buddy's leash? -- seemed loath to accept that there was nothing left to dissect. CNN's Bill Schneider gamely identified Bill Clinton's base of support among a group he identified as -- unveiling this coinage with a flourish -- "the New Rich." (Like the nouveau riche, but they speak English.) Meanwhile, reporters peppered White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart at an afternoon news conference: Did the president have lunch? Why did the White House lawyers leave for lunch by the northwest gate? How much was spent in legal fees? Once the questioning turned to Kosovo and upcoming legislation, it was pretty clear the significant stuff was over, and the news nets cut away -- making it all the more strange to hear a Fox correspondent babbling about how anxious the White House press corps was to start covering "anything but impeachment."

Still, it was nothing compared with the pall that hung over MSNBC, where impeachment all-star John Gibson seemed a positively tragic figure, drained white -- well, whiter -- by the prospect of soon having to whip up partisan outbursts over the privatization of Social Security. They say there was no simple majority for conviction, but in fact the simple majority, with plenty of conviction, gathered in force on "NewsChat" to mourn with Gibson, who put forth to the viewers the show's trademark Question of the Day: "Should we accept the verdict, or should we take the law into our own hands, smashing down the White House gate as our torches light the night with the flames of pure justice?" Or something to that effect. But, you know? The magic was gone.

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By my lights, though, Gibson has little to worry about. There's enough blind venom in this country to last well into the next century. For we now all live in 50 Percent Off Nation. Is it really all over? Nothing was over as of 12:37 p.m. Friday that hasn't been over for months. We've kept arguing the case nonetheless because, increasingly, each side of this country thinks the other is not merely wrong but illegitimate. Friday, we got a verdict suited to our times, relieving many but settling nothing. The president was wrongly tormented for a year over a personal failing. The president screwed the American justice system and walked off scot-free, biting his lip to hold back the laughs. It's a much deeper quarrel that 50 Percent Off Nation will find new means to express, in the form of those "substantive issues" that we all, you know, have been just dying to take a whack at.

What did we learn during the past year? That the nation yearns for a strong unifying figure, which we got in the form of Linda Tripp, busily transforming herself from the Elizabethan-puppet-show stock villain who drew easy playground barbs from the press for her looks. (A classic pot-kettle encounter, by the by, to anyone who's had the pleasure of cruising a get-together of journalists.) Of course it's fun watching Tripp's ham-handed attempts to invite us all into her gingerbread house for a big candy feast, but the irony is that she was right all along: She is us.

That is, we're all going to rehabilitate our images now. America in 1999 will be like Germany in 1946. The official story will be that the past 14 months were a shame, but we personally had nothing to do with it. We were never that interested in that story -- but Klaus down the road, there was always something a little fishy about him. Democrats? Social Security's job one -- always has been! Republicans? We just want to cut taxes! Already, Friday afternoon, Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, was piously telling Jim Lehrer he wouldn't "let the media create an artificial fight" -- one day after he had called Bill Clinton the "most accomplished liar" in American history.

In the meantime, we'll take well-deserved breaks, heading off week-long recesses or filing meaningless wrap-ups. So fare thee well, Sens. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., and Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii -- you'll always be at the top of the roll call of our hearts! Fare thee well, John Dean, Howard Baker, Daniel Schorr and Elizabeth Holtzman, and may the good staff of the Benevolent Center for Former Watergate Figures take good care of you! Fare thee well, impeachment scholar John Pavia of Quinnipiac College!

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And next week, we can all get back to doing the people's business. Make sure you have air freshener.

- - - - - - - - - -

Who's Outing Whom?

When Jerry Falwell issued his famous warning that Tinky Winky, the lavender character on the children's show "Teletubbies" who carries a red purse, is a gay role model, the smirking mass media wondered: Has he lost his mind? A smaller minority wondered: This is news? Anyone who's paid a scrap of attention to the TV series since it premiered in the States last year knows Tinky had long ago lit up the gaydar, not of the Moral Majority, but of the gay community. Last month, the Village Voice's Michael Musto crabbed that his long-standing observation that the Teletubby "sends kids the welcome message that it's OK to be gay" -- more or less the same point Falwell made, albeit with opposite sentiments -- earned him a "Jeer" in TV Guide: "TV Guide," Musto wrote, "which has so many sisters on staff that the TV should stand for transvestite ... didn't care much for that remark, self-loathingly enough." Last spring Harper's Bazaar quoted a media-studies academic calling Tinky "the first role model for queer toddlers." The outing runs back to the show's origins across the pond. In 1997 James Delingpole in the Spectator wrote that "homosexuals (in Britain) have elevated the handbag-toting Tinky Winky to a gay icon"; and the firing of the actor who first wore the purple suit in 1997 prompted protests among British gays.

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At the time no one was dismissing Mr. Winky's gay boosters as crackpots (except the show's nervous production company). Which raises the question of whether the derision of Falwell's crusade is another sign of antireligious bias in the secular general media. When a right-wing Christian leader outs Tinky Winky, it's proof this Bible-thumping Cletus is missing a string on his banjo -- but when a cultural-studies academic or a Voice columnist says it, it's an insightful apercu on our gorgeous televisual mosaic.

Whatever Falwell's motives, he's shown himself hipper to the discourse of pop culture-savvy gays than many of the wags who laughed him off last week. Perhaps, as a result, they're deaf to a deeper message within Falwell's cri de coeur. Think about it: A spokesman for a not-exactly-lifestyle-tolerant community is hinting to the rest of the world that he's been closely following the discourse of gay cultural critics for years. Does no one think that, perhaps, the good rev is trying to tell us something? Well, I for one support the man as he struggles to come to terms with his identity and express himself to an insensitive public. Preach it, Sister Jerry! You will survive!


James Poniwozik

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