Pimps without portfolio

Even after the impeachment debacle revealed just how out of touch they are, the Washington media elite are still trying to hustle the American people.

By Steve Erickson
Published February 17, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

To be honest, it was only on further reflection that it occurred to me the new movie "Rushmore" might be called "Young Mr. Clinton," the bizarro-universe corollary of John Ford's 1939 "Young Mr. Lincoln." The biggest fuck-up at Rushmore prep school, the film's protagonist, Max, is half precocious and half stunted, half triumphant smirk and half self-pitying whine, outrageous liar and compulsive con man, an embodiment of the present moment while stuck in a past of old Donovan songs and '60s Playboy centerfolds tacked to the wall. Sound familiar? That he hasn't yet become a complete sexual degenerate is only because he's 15.

The news media hasn't made the connection between the president and "Rushmore," but then the news media is no longer in the business of making connections, assuming it ever was. The very idea of pop culture saying more about the country than the political culture ever did or could doesn't simply confound the media, it terrifies it: If you were to ask Sam Donaldson who was more important to post-World War II America, Gerald Ford or Chuck Berry, do you have any doubt what he would answer? That any president of the United States, even one as inconsequential as Ford, might be less significant in the vast scheme of things than the man who invented the musical vernacular of the last half-century threatens everything Donaldson represents. Because media culture and political culture breathe the same air and exchange the same conceptual viruses, and anything from outside the bubble in which they exist is alien to their common immune system. It's just another example of how -- like the political culture it pimps for -- the Washington opinion-elite that presumes to speak for the country fails so utterly to understand it.

For a year now, the country has been trying to tell the media something about itself. This, it has said again and again, is who we are. Again and again the media has ignored it. Once, 30 or 40 years ago during the McCarthy hearings and civil rights and Vietnam and Watergate, the electronic press in particular was mediator between the political establishment and the rest of us. But somewhere in the unfolding Lewinsky scandal the press finally and completely lost its bearings. Exacerbated by the cable age's hothouse atmosphere of competition, the media's natural inclination to patronize the nation turned into barely veiled contempt mixed with full-blown confusion, its every acknowledgment of the public's "disconnect" from the scandal implicitly suggesting that the great unwashed didn't get it. It was the same argument Henry Hyde made for the last three months: If, like kindergartners, the distracted masses could just be focused long enough and educated about the nuances of the scandal as Hyde's more exalted intelligence understood them, then opinion would shift accordingly.

Consciously or unconsciously, the media and politicians have become partners in this collective condescension. This is why the country hates them, and why it's come to believe there's no difference between them. With a few smart exceptions like Ronald Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times, throughout the scandal the punditocracy consistently relegated public opinion to libertarian nihilism at best -- Dow Jones vs. Paula Jones -- until this characterization finally ossified into bargain-basement wisdom. During the Senate trial of the president, nothing was more stupefying than the abject deference paid by reporters to the doddering nonsense of Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., whose delirious hegira across the landscape of impeachment increasingly manifested itself as a kind of constitutional Alzheimer's: First he hinted broadly he would vote to convict the president of the charges against him; then he moved to dismiss the charges outright; then he told Cokie Roberts there was "no doubt whatsoever" in his mind Clinton committed high crimes and misdemeanors, but a president can't be removed when the economy is doing well -- a rankly cynical rationale for casting an impeachment vote if there ever was one. This from the so-called conscience of the Senate, the former Ku Klux Klan member who carries the Constitution around in his pocket because he supposedly loves it so much.

The public didn't choose Dow Jones over Paula Jones. The public came to its disquieted conclusions about the Lewinsky scandal because into the Cuisinart of real life it fed its own experiential wisdom along with a gut feeling that the authoritarian instincts of the independent prosecutor more profoundly threatened the country's values than the president's depraved appetites. As well, people made a hardheaded assessment of the legal facts as falling short of what would win a conviction in any ordinary court case.

But most remarkable of all was the public's evolving sense of moral dimension, one that far outpaced what the political culture or media culture or self-designated moral culture pretended to comprehend. People may have agonized over how they were supposed to explain the president's behavior to their children, but they also ultimately understood that we don't live in a child's world guided by a child's morality or a child's schematic of right and wrong. We live in a grown-up world in which -- William Bennett's persistent laments and Rep. Tom DeLay's protest about "relativism" vs. "absolute truth" aside -- morality isn't always absolute any more than it's always relative. Some things are absolutely evil and some things are relatively wrong. Auschwitz was evil. The president cheating on his wife and diddling an intern half his age was wrong.

This is the sort of thing any reasonably thoughtful 14-year-old knows, so it's amazing it has to be said at all. Over recent months Bennett and DeLay haven't enriched moral discourse but cheapened it, devaluing the currency of moral rhetoric with a facile and opportunistic outrage that denies moral distinctions. Similarly, craven Democrats -- still traumatized by 25 years of Republicans portraying them as druggies and orgiasts, and thus desperate to prove their rectitude by censuring the president -- weren't satisfied to call Clinton reckless, narcissistic and stupid; he had "dishonored" the presidency, they insisted, to which Republicans logically asked how anyone who had truly dishonored the presidency could be allowed to go on being president. And because from a dramatic standpoint the media has a vested interest in rendering all human endeavor as moral chiaroscuro, because it finds nothing more chilling than the prospect of being out of sync with the Zeitgeist, it joined in the bacchanal of sanctimony only to find itself not just out of sync but on a different planet. Itself traumatized by years of accusations of liberal bias, the press scrambled to position itself on the side of self-righteousness only to find the public wasn't feeling especially self-righteous at the moment -- at which point, like Bennett, Sam Donaldson could only wonder aloud at the ethical bankruptcy of a public that from the outset had a better grasp and perspective of what was involved than he ever did.

In the last week CNN's Jeff Greenfield, usually one of the rare lights among TV commentators, said one smart thing and one dumb thing. The dumb thing was when he asked a group of four senators on "Larry King Live" whether the president didn't warrant removal simply for the way he embarrassed the country, simply for the way people would wander by the White House and peer in at the Oval Office and -- rather than thinking of it in the hallowed terms of Jefferson and Lincoln and Kennedy -- forevermore think of it in terms of Clinton's blow jobs.

Leave aside for the moment the argument's obvious wrinkles, like Jefferson's slave-mistress and Lincoln's suicidal manic-depression and Kennedy's blow jobs. It's not hard to understand why Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, blissfully unburdened by imagination or insight, might be moved by such a question, posed as it was by Greenfield with enough indignant power and eloquence as to nearly obscure the obvious answer: No. We don't remove presidents for embarrassing us. If and when we do, we're going to be discarding presidents for the duration, because in the final analysis embarrassment is subjective; Clinton embarrasses you while Ronald Reagan mortified me on a daily basis. We remove presidents because they have committed high crimes against the state and are a danger to the country. In the end it isn't complicated.

The smart thing that Greenfield said was that -- contrary to the conventional wisdom that Clinton might have avoided all this if he had been more forthcoming early on -- in fact Clinton has, all in all, handled the whole matter rather shrewdly, the disastrous Aug. 17 post-grand jury speech notwithstanding. Ruthlessly, the president determined from the beginning that if he could just run out the clock it would give the public a chance to absorb the scandal and maybe get him through those early days when condemnation seemed to be reaching critical mass. The hard and discomforting fact of the matter is that one of the baldest and most famous lies of modern American history -- "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" -- bought him time and probably saved his presidency.

That he survived the lie itself is what's unique about Clinton and our relationship to him. Where once the press was mediator between the political establishment and the rest of us, as the dust finally settles on the Lewinsky matter what now becomes clear is how Clinton has become mediator between the rest of us and the press. Even in all his sordidness, people still relate to Clinton more than they relate to Sam Donaldson, which for someone in Donaldson's position is absolutely catastrophic. In an America where a new national survey reveals one out of three people have virtually no sex life whatsoever, Clinton is our national sex surrogate, horndog-in-chief. As with Max in "Rushmore," there's something about him more vicarious than we would like, more endearing than may be good for us.

In the same way that Reagan used to make the political left crazy, over the last seven years the political right has become unhinged beyond all reason about Clinton. With the days ticking down and his relevancy waning by the moment, the right still can't help clinging to the hope that some righteous retribution will yet visit down on him an "acid rain" of public fury, as George Will put it so yearningly a week or two ago, deluging the president now that the struggle over impeachment is concluded and the question of his survival in office is safely resolved. In one of those periodically idiotic pronouncements by which she convinces impressionable people she's an intellectual, Peggy Noonan wrote with great satisfaction six months ago in Time that the public had finally come to see Clinton for the horrid person he is. Whereas people used to say that Warren Harding wasn't really bad, just a slob, Noonan explained, in Clinton's case they have come to know he's not just a slob, he's bad.

Dear editors at Time. For a 10th of whatever you're paying Noonan I'll be happy to write this kind of horseshit for you; please contact me through Salon. People have concluded nothing of the sort about Clinton. They have, in fact, concluded exactly the opposite: In this decade of polls there's been none more telling than one taken by the Washington Post during the campaign of 1996, when a large majority of Americans confirmed they considered Republican nominee Bob Dole to be the man of higher moral character, and a larger majority said they believed Clinton cared about their problems more than Dole did, and the largest majority of all -- three to one, roughly corresponding with the president's current job rating -- said that, given the choice, they preferred the empath to the saint. For all his phoniness and adolescent behavior and all-consuming self-involvement, Americans believe that Clinton is still the slob trying to get them better health care while all those fine upstanding Republican paragons are looking out for the tobacco companies and every toddler's right to pack his own assault weapon. In the end, this isn't complicated either. Closer to Chuck Berry than Gerald Ford, Clinton is a president of and for "Rushmore" -- the movie, of course, not the mountain.

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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