TELEVISION: Perverse pleasures of a quibbling, fuming President; The News

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The Independent Culture
All day on Thursday "that video" - as the presenters started calling it - was the top story, even though there was nothing to report. All day on Friday, the House of Representatives' judiciary committee wrangled about whether it should be released, and how long they could afford to wait before deciding.

Already, it is clear that we are about to witness the creation of an icon, and one that says many things about the new realities of politics in the television age. Gradually, the simple question of whether the world would be offered the opportunity to indulge in the perverse pleasure of watching the President being tormented by his inquisitors became entangled with other questions. How much else would the committee release? And what about the sins of the inquisitors themselves?

The first reaction to have become apparent is that the culture of television news is entering a Mannerist phase. Manner has driven out matter. We already know, after all, what the President told the Grand Jury in his videotaped testimony. So you could say that for several days, the world's news bulletins gave priority to a non-story - about a tape that didn't appear, of evidence that had been in the newspapers for weeks.

But that would be to miss the point. Any lawyer will tell you that the manner in which evidence is given can indeed be as important as the substance. And enough has already been leaked to give us a pretty shrewd idea of what it shows: a President who lies, quibbles, fidgets, fumes and loses control.

Rightly or wrongly, the leakers have made it plain that the tape shows the President in a disastrously worse light even than he appears in Kenneth Starr's report. That is why we can be sure that one or more clips will emerge from it and will played over and over again.

In Wagner's operas, characters and ideas are introduced by a leitmotif, a brief theme which alerts the audience to the former's appearance or reappearance in the story. Television news has picked up the same technique.

At first, whenever Monica Lewinsky's name came up, we saw a Reuter still picture of her. That was all anyone had. Then someone discovered the picture of her throwing her arms round the President in a manner adoring and at the same time unmistakably steamy.

The chances are that, once the videotape of the President's interrogation is released, every time he is mentioned we will see the same leit-clip, of a hunted man, goaded beyond endurance, turning on his tormentors. In much the same way, every time we saw Jimmy Carter, we were likely to see him stumbling with exhaustion during his morning run.

Just as the idea of Jimmy Carter became inextricably associated in the minds of Americans with the ideas of weakness, exhaustion and failure, so Bill Clinton faces the danger that his name will be forever associated not with a sexual escapade but with far more damaging images: petulance, evasiveness, lying and loss of control.

That is how television news works, and it is especially how round-the- clock 24-hour news works. Its thirst for pictures, for graphic, memorable images, is insatiable. And once such an image is implanted in the public eye, it is indelible until some stronger image comes along to replace it.

At the moment, the American public is fed up with hearing about Clinton's sex life. Tens of millions would rejoice if they never heard Monica Lewinsky's name again. Americans, especially those who grew up in the 1960s and ever since, are not exactly shrinking violets where sex is concerned. Even the most prudish Baptist knows that these things happen, even if that person now knows altogether more than he or she would have wished about exactly how they happen.

For a time, it looked as if there would be a tug-of-war between the political class, including the politicians and the news media, who thought that Clinton would have to go, and the wider public, who didn't see why. As long as that was the line-up, Bill Clinton had a chance.

After all, the politicians would have to go back to their districts, sooner or later, and if their constituents really didn't want Clinton to be punished, the political class might have to swallow its own instincts, and let him off with a vote of censure.

But that isn't how things work in the age of video politics. It hasn't been the case for years that politics is an activity taking place out there on its own, with the news media simply coming along and reporting it, as a candle is reflected in a mirror. It is in the media and on the television screen that politics now takes place. The video is the event. The image now becomes the truth.

Connoisseurs of irony will make what they will of the fact that Clinton, who lived by the image, may also die by it.