The Breakfast Table

Along the Contrition Trail

Oh Herb,

Irving Berlin would be jealous. (Or whoever wrote “Our Love is Here to Stay”–I’m too busy looking up priapism to have time to look that up too. Actually I don’t have to look up priapism. Even if I hadn’t known what it meant, we have had such a high-level demonstration in recent months that surely the whole country knows by now.)

I agree that the sexual peccadillo aspect of Clinton’s offenses is not trivial or irrelevant. And I distinguish the sort of in-office hitting in which he apparently indulges whenever his aides permit or whenever he can evade them, from the discrete, one-time affair of the heart a la Lucy Mercer, which is pointed to by his defenders as proof that great presidents too may dally. And I think perjury is serious business too–again I also distinguish self-serving lies from those meant to protect the national security. But the point is that the American people clearly don’t think so, if the pollsters are to be believed. And Congress reads the polls, if not with the same rapt attention accorded them by this White House.

I know that we in the media are not supposed to criticize our potential readers upon whose interest our livelihood depends. But I am constantly struck afresh by the public’s hypocrisy on L’affaire Lewinsky. Time and again people profess the highest possible personal standards of sexual morality when queried by pollsters, yet they are also quite ready to dismiss as irrelevant egregious behavior by the holder of the highest office in the land. (Senators and Supreme Court nominees are apparently held to a higher standard.) Of course this same pious public provides the ratings that drive television, movies and radio to ever more smutty offerings. And to more and more Monica coverage. Again the public keeps protesting it has had its fill of her and still the ratings soar whenever she is back in the news.

And while I’m on my soapbox, let me suggest that there is another stop Clinton should make as he mopes along the contrition trail: at the door of the media. For months–even now–we have heard nothing from his defenders but constant allegations that the press has been irresponsible. That all sorts of false information was being reported by mainstream outlets as they scrambled to respond to the new (and much exaggerated) pressure placed on the news process by the advent of the internet. (No one seems to recall the days of Extra! editions. Hildy Johnson didn’t bother with fact checkers.)

Well, excuse me, but what was all that false information? Off hand I can’t think of a single report–from stained dresses to Secret Service sightings–that made its way into a mainstream outlet that has been shown to be incorrect. As for Matt Drudge, the president owes him special thanks. If Drudge hadn’t broken the Newsweek story prematurely, Ken Starr might have had time to wire Monica and produce some indisputable obstruction of justice evidence for his report.

But what about the public? Is Seib right that the national character is on the upswing? And what about that $80-billion tax cut that, I read in the Wall Street Journal, the GOP has just unveiled. How does that strike you, as a former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under a Republican president?