Does America care about immorality?
THE CLEAN JOKE making the rounds now is that the Clinton White House is hoping other bimbos will erupt because then the president's approval ratings will soar to 90 percent.
It has been a surreal week. A president that most of official Washington considered to be in irretrievable disgrace was greeted not just politely by Congress at his State of the Union address but wildly -- with a hero's welcome.
From Democrats, anyway. One can understand the urge to unite behind a leader when he is under attack. The rallying impulse is not limited to Democrats. Republicans responded similarly when charges were swirling around Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. "They're always out to get our guys," said many a grass-roots Republican, "so we have to stick up for him." At the same time, many Republican members of the House broke ranks and called for the speaker to step down. Not a single Democrat has done the same regarding President Clinton.
But while a circle-the-wagons response is not unusual, particularly among Democrats, what made last week surreal was the fact that their guy is not, in fact, under attack. He was caught, and the only question was how soon the evidence would become mountainous.
The response of the public has been even more perplexing. It has boosted the president to the highest approval ratings he has ever enjoyed. What can it mean? Are the American people so cynical or so decadent that they are willing to tolerate acts by a president that NBC refused to condone in a sportscaster -- provided the economy is humming?
Or were they actually persuaded by Hillary Clinton that the president is the victim here? Her straight-faced assertion that a vast, right-wing conspiracy has been at work to bring down her man ought to have caused most listeners to fear for Mrs. Clinton's lucidity. If she had been a caller to a radio talk show instead of the first lady, she would have been cut off peremptorily. The right wing can't even get the Republican presidential nomination for a conservative, far less plant willing concubines in the West Wing and pull the strings of Kenneth Starr.
Perhaps those poll ratings for the president are actually a thumb in the eye of the press -- a more hated institution than any other in America. There is little doubt that the day and night spectacle of the press panting after a sex scandal story is distasteful.
But shoot the messenger doesn't explain quite enough. Something else is causing the great bulk of the American public to keep this scandal at arms' length. It may be the problem of crying wolf.
Watergate was the defining event in the lives of most American politicians and journalists. Having struck pay dirt so profitably in 1974, the Democrats continued to drill that well. A president who had won by a landslide in 1972 was out of office two years later. Democrats therefore continued to cry scandal about popular Republicans who followed.
Long before Iran/Contra gave them something to sink their teeth into, Democrats were attempting to discredit and, if possible, unseat Ronald Reagan for any number of manufactured scandals -- the so-called October surprise led to months of investigation, "Debategate" concerned the supposed "theft" of Jimmy Carter's briefing book, Ed Meese had three special prosecutors sicced on him, Richard Allen was hounded for accepting two wrist watches, and so on. When Iran/Contra came along, many in the Democratic Party and the press were quick to declare it a repeat of the "constitutional crisis" of Watergate.
Where no scandal could be found, as in the life and work of Robert Bork, it was freely invented.
Republicans have played the game, too, appointing independent counsels to look into Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate and the rest. But none of these scandals has ever come to resolution. They are pitched into the black hole called Kenneth Starr, and that is the last of it. So perhaps it is understandable that when this latest scandal erupted, the public's attitude was more of fatigue than outrage. The political class has cried wolf so often that now, when there really is a wolf, no one believes it.
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1/6/98: "Understandable" Murder and Child Custody
1/2/98: Majoring in Sex
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12/26/97: Food fights (Games children play)
12/23/97: Does Clinton's race panel listen to facts?
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12/16/97: Do America's Jews support Netanyahu?