The American Century’s Happiest Scandal

Imagine, if you dare, a world without Monica Lewinsky.

The Op-Ed brigade would be carrying on ominously about the continuing threat that Saddam Hussein and his elite Republican Guard pose to national security. Retired military officers with vaguely Southern accents would be encamped at Cable News Network, ready to describe at a moment’s notice the many ways in which the madman of the Persian Gulf could be blown to atoms without causing so much as a bad-hair day among the innocent Iraqi citizenry. And there would be dire talk, too, about the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the latest episode of Balkanite-on-Balkanite violence, and general questions about war and peace and that sort of thing.

Running a worldwide commercial empire is a grim and important business indeed, and always has been. Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, after all, were eloquent and serious guys, but not exactly a barrel of laughs. Too bad they lived a few thousand years before late-night talk shows, tabloid television and the general ironic fun of postmodernism. What with those famous imperial orgies and all, those noble Romans could have mixed in a little levity between discourses on government and all that other earnest, boring stuff.

Luckily, Monica Lewinsky has spared us all the ponderous business that accompanies empire-running. “I used to cover the fall of Communism,” muttered Francis X. Clines of The New York Times , who, from his listening post in The Times ‘ Washington bureau, now covers the fall, or alleged fall, of the President’s pants.

“Certainly, this is a story that can afford a certain polemical exuberance in critics of the President, and polemical exuberance is more entertaining than lugubrious, pompous intonations about threats to the Constitution,” said John Podhoretz, editorial page editor of the New York Post .

Certainly, Monica Lewinsky has inspired, or is alleged to have inspired, the happiest scandal in recent political history. Men and women who might otherwise have been relegated to the media sidelines, who might otherwise have had to make do with jokes about Saddam’s mustache, who might otherwise have tortured themselves about the public’s lack of interest in politics (and therefore the public’s lack of interest in them) find themselves on television talking about sex! This is wonderful! Unbelievable! News practitioners suck in their cheeks to fight off a big, satisfied grin.

“It’s a great time to be a humor columnist,” said Tony Kornheiser of The Washington Post , who has devoted six straight Sunday columns to l’affaire Lewinsky. “For me, it’s a gold mine. In my case, it’s how many sneaky, smarmy, underhanded ways you can try to make oral sex jokes without actually making them. That’s my job.”

What a happy scandal! The on-line magazine Slate , thought to be absent from the national dialogue, recorded a huge increase in hits since the political world started debating the political, legal and biblical repercussions of oral sex. Slate’s readership jumped from 140,000 in November (when all that mattered was chemical weapons in the hands of an unstable, unfriendly dictator) to 270,000 in January (when journalists were heard on television using the phrase “semen-stained dress”). What luck- Slate is about to ask its readers to start paying for the material.

Oh, there are smiles everywhere. Forget the scowls of Kenneth Starr and the moral certainty that stiffen Linda Tripp’s lips. They’re clearly not with the program. America is playing this one for laughs. And the players themselves are having the time of their lives. How much fun do you think Lucianne Goldberg is having? Heretofore, she was known only to the noisy cabal of right-wing Clinton haters, a “literary” agent for the who-killed-Vince-Foster crowd. Now she’s everywhere, at the very center of the best news story of the decade. She’s a star in “literary” circles, a development that tells us as much about “literary” people as it does about Ms. Goldberg.

What about Harold Ickes? Why, until Monica Lewinsky came along, this former top White House aide was trying to figure out how to get Peter Vallone elected as Governor of New York. Not exactly high-profile work. Summoned back into action, he swallowed his considerable pride-remember, this is a man who received the President’s often-deployed back of the hand when the second-term goodies were passed around-and was back in the war room. Speaking at New York University on March 5, this gleeful warrior launched into an expletive-filled assault on the President’s enemies, calling Mr. Starr’s inquiry “a goddamn disgrace.” When he was finished, he burst into one of the biggest smiles that has ever crossed his usually dour face.

Oh, what fun!

Maureen Dowd of The New York Times has been given a gift from the gods of absurdity, with copy enough for the remainder of Mr. Clinton’s term. What the Persian Gulf did for CNN and O.J. Simpson did for Court TV, Monicagate has done for MSNBC, which, as scandal-watchers know, is the place to turn for constant changes in President Clinton’s alibis. Obscure cybergossip Matt Drudge found himself on Meet the Press next to William Safire, and now he’s preparing to host a television show on the Fox News Channel. White House conspiracymonger Sidney Blumenthal could hardly contain his glee as he discussed his appearance before Kenneth Starr’s tribunal. Jay Leno is doing his Bob Hope-Will Rogers thing, but with material Rogers and Mr. Hope could never have imagined. (Or, if they did, they knew their future employment prospects depended on their ability to show restraint.) For headline writers for the New York Post , this is the best sex they’ve ever had. Post proprietor Rupert Murdoch finds himself in joyful combat with his disillusioned former employee, Harry Evans, who seems to be making his mark on the Daily News as the new supremo of Mortimer Zuckerman’s publishing empire. And just when conventional wisdom had it that newsweeklies printed on glossy paper were dinosaurs, Newsweek showed itself to be spectacularly relevant. Its ace reporter on the semen-stained-dress beat, Michael Isikoff, has been carrying on as if he had stumbled on the greatest story since Watergate.

You remember Watergate. What an unhappy scandal that was. Remember the long faces on the members of the House Judiciary Committee when they were voting to impeach Richard Nixon? Remember the anguish in Peter Rodino’s voice as he muttered that final “aye”? None of that this time around. This time around, it’s farce, not tragedy.

True, not everyone is having a humdinger of a time. Bureaucrat-turned-culture-critic William J. Bennett seems out of sorts, although that is hardly news. Mr. Bennett recently wrung his hands in The Wall Street Journal about moral rot and cultural collapse and so on. Mr. Podhoretz himself cautions that “this is a pretty serious business involving a potentially very serious effort to obstruct justice.” And the fun-loving Steve Dunleavy of the New York Post seems positively morose. “I tell you what, I’m not laughing,” he said. “I get angry. I get angry. There are certain members of the media who are enjoying this, but I’m not.”

What a pity. As Captain Renault said when Major Strasser shut down Rick’s, everybody’s having such a good time.

“This is like a joke writer’s paradise,” admitted James Carville. And Mr. Carville himself is a resident of that particular Eden. With the White House on war-with-a-wink footing, Mr. Carville has been drafted back into service to hold the line from the merry foot soldiers of the right-wing conspiracy. “I guess I look like I’m having fun because the underlying allegations have been denied and don’t seem to be serious in the first place,” he said.

Jon Macks seconds the latter sentiment. A joke writer for Jay Leno, Mr. Macks understands that times like these come around only once in life. “This is something everyone can understand,” Mr. Macks said. That said, however, people like Mr. Macks have trouble competing with straight news shows. “If you’re doing comedy at night, all of a sudden you have four news anchors talking about semen stains on a dress … Now you’ve got [Tom] Brokaw saying, ‘They’re sending a dress [to the lab] to test for Presidential DNA.’ It’s immediate comedy.”

The WABC radio talk-show host Lionel, who mans the station’s morning-drive time, said his listenership has skyrocketed since the First Zipper fell. “We couldn’t have constructed anything better,” he said. “We’re getting more calls, people listen longer and people are sampling the station. The day you can have a legitimate news talk topic that involves oral sex and semen-stained dresses-are you kidding? People just love this.” He added with great glee that his listeners weren’t interested in what he called “highfalutin” news. “This is the place where people come to hear total, unprofessional, wide-eyed speculation,” he said. “That’s what we do. They don’t want to hear responsible journalism.”

Well, at least they’re never disappointed.

It is a scandal for the times and for the Administration that produced it. “It’s so perfect, that’s what I enjoy about it,” said Tucker Carlson, a staff writer for Rupert Murdoch’s The Weekly Standard . “Every Administration gets the scandal it deserves. Ronald Reagan had Iran-contra, which was vigorous, aggressive and based on ideology. The Lewinsky story is perfect for the Clinton Administration because it is small, sordid, petty and non-ideological. How fitting it is.”

And how well the scandal fits with the two generations, baby boomers and the Generation X crowd, that are chronicling it. Baby boomers may be old enough to have been participants and players in the Watergate drama (Exhibit A: Hillary Rodham Clinton), but that was their parents’ scandal, played by their parents’ rules. Watergate had Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein double-sourcing their findings, torturing themselves over each new allegation, wringing their hands over the future of the republic. The Washington Post editor and father figure Ben Bradlee, he of the World War II generation, would have it no other way.

This time around, the scandal has found its signature chronicler in baby buster Matt Drudge, who is proud to say that he doesn’t bother himself with questions of sourcing. Those are the old rules. Ben Bradlee’s rules. Daddy’s rules.

Now, of course, Mr. Bradlee is retired, and the boomers and their successors are running the show (and, in fact, the country). The generation reared on cheap irony and overweening cynicism, on an amoral celebrity culture and the blurring of distinctions between the serious and the frivolous, has given us the American Century’s last political scandal. And it is centered around … a blowjob!

“The tragedy here may be that this is this generation’s Watergate,” said writer Nicholas von Hoffman, an Observer columnist who covered the fall of Richard Nixon for The Washington Post . “This is a crisis of one-liners. Watergate was about war and peace. Everybody should know when it’s time to go to war and when it’s time to laugh. This is laugh time. You have to be out of your mind to take this seriously. The only way Clinton will leave office before his term expires is if he’s laughed out of town. This is a President for Valley girls and Valley talk.”

Clearly, though, there are some unsmiling souls who believe either that Mr. Clinton ought to be impeached, or that the now-famous right-wing conspiracy is engaged in the moral equivalent of a coup. The impeachers cry that this is all as bad or much worse than Watergate. The coup-busters hint darkly of conspirators whose mission is nothing less than the overthrow of a duly elected head of state.

Perhaps it’s simply a case of Watergate envy. Every generation wants a bit of history to call its own. Besides, the country hasn’t had a really good beginning to an impeachment in a quarter-century-if we went that long without wars, why, all our neat hardware would be rusty and obsolete. How will we ever know how all-news television networks would cover an impeachment unless we have one, and soon?

Post-hot-type newspapers, crowded as they are with Watergate’s heirs, are doing their best to apply their intensive training to this bit of tabloid-TV fare. “I think we are trying to apply the same stagecraft to a pettier set of facts,” said one reporter for The New York Times . “It’s ill-fitting and kind of weird. But that’s the way it is. That’s what we do. It’s still basically the same method. In the collective memory, that sense of theater [from Watergate] is still there, and there is always the question of whether anything will rise to it. And now this.”

“For my part, if it came to impeaching the President, I think it would be terrible for the country,” said Mr. Carlson, the Weekly Standard writer and an obvious killjoy. “Americans take the stability of the executive branch for granted, and this would be terribly destabilizing for the country. Political instability is always bad, and I would hate it if he were impeached.” Mr. Carlson suggested resignation as a more palatable alternative.

For the moment, though, the President doesn’t appear to be going anywhere except higher in the polls, with his job performance ratings echoing the country’s satisfaction with those most potent of political commodities, peace and prosperity.

Many have suggested that the President’s ratings are a reflection of the country’s contentment, but few have taken that connection to its logical end. Thanks to his association with Monica Lewinsky, Mr. Clinton has given us a scandal that makes us laugh, and that is single-handedly responsible for the growth of a thriving cottage industry that no Third World sneaker maker can take away.

“I think this has been good for everyone’s sex life,” said Mr. Macks, the joke writer. “The fact that millions of couples are sitting around at night after the news talking about oral sex and quickies. Of all Clinton’s accomplishments, this may be the greatest.”

Yes, sir: a scandal for the times! The American Century’s Happiest Scandal