American TV's oral tradition

It was another benchmark moment in a week that saw the airwaves crackle with the weird and the wonderful. "Back after these messages with a biblical expert on whether oral sex constitutes adultery, and a counsellor explains how to answer those awkward questions from your kids."

Monica. Monica. Monica. Between the counsellors and the experts and the ideological cranks it has been, as the New York Times balefully noted, "all Monica, all the time".

In a week when the Clintons' allies and foes alike were keeping their heads down (no other phrase comes to mind), it was left to entrepreneurial media commentators operating in truncated news cycles to keep the hoi polloi tuned in and turned on. It came easily, one station reporting as fact what another was reporting as rumour until the muddy waves of scandal seemed to lap over them all in a murky spin cycle.

"It is being reported on CNN that the President engaged in phone sex, which if true would be immensely disturbing. Bob?"

"On ABC it is being reported that the presidential encounters were limited to oral sex but apparently, and we are just learning this, it took place 20 times." Audible gasp. "And breaking news - we are hearing from an affiliate that the secret service may have interrupted the President and Ms Lewinsky on one of their encounters. We'll bring YOU news after these messages."

It has been a uniquely televisual spectacle, fronted by a group of characters who look like refugees from the afternoon talk show circuit.

With all the giddy talk of impeachment and resignation, TV wanted to show precedent but could make no linear connection with Nixon's downfall, which unfolded over the space of 26 months in a time of slower news cycles and more rigorous fact-checking.

There were late-night chuckles about Clinton's own Deep Throat and CREEP (You remember Nixon's Committee to Re-Elect the President ...) and the existence of tapes and creep (Tripp and Monica's favourite word to describe the President) and the little swanning world of internecine betrayals and creep.

Plus, there was the ominous mention of the Watergate apartment building where Lewinsky was shacked up. There were signs of discreet but ruthless counter-intelligence at work as the hapless Lewinsky had her life turned inside out. Documents pertaining to her parents' divorce revealed that Mr Lewinsky had been shelling out pounds 750 a month for therapy for his kids.

Not enough. Too much? Who knew?

Monica? Oh, she was fat, slutty and mouthy, but in Beverly Hills High School they had voted her Girl Whose Name Was Most Likely To End Up In Lights. Short of hearing that they had voted her head girl, the tabloid TV shows couldn't have been more tickled. The business of damping down the latest bimbo eruption, indeed the Mount Etna of bimbo eruptions, was slow to get into full swing, but just before Tuesday's State of the Union address a ponytailed drama teacher and his wife announced. apropos of nothing in particular, that the teacher had enjoyed a five-year affair with Lewinsky. Mr Bleiler, drama teacher of Portland, Oregon, concluded his 15 minutes of fame by denouncing Monica as a fantasist. The impact on enrolment in Mr Bleiler's drama classes is not yet known.

The whole production is playing to a bemused audience. The polls and vox pops which are dotted through the wall-to-wall wraparound non-stop Monica Monica Monica coverage suggest that the American public isn't quite as ready for the criminalisation of consensual sexual activity as its media is.

People understand the gravity of lying but aren't too sure why their President was forced into a corner in the first place. Frothing anchor people and salivating beat reporters have been taken aback by the impertinence of many Joe and Jolene Publics who have vox-popped to the effect that "the President should be allowed just get on with his job".

Americans have lived for some time now with the knowledge that gravity exerts an unusually insistent pull on their President's zipper. In a time of plenty they have been able to live with that.

TV's insistent connecting of private behaviour to public performance isn't wholly pleasing to an electorate that conceivably checks its own closet for skeletons a little more rigorously than the media do. "Doesn't character matter to America any more?" has been the forehead-furrowing question posed by TV talking heads after each foray into the real world. The character of the media matters more than the media suspect. There are even small signs of a backlash against the press and the prosecutors, a movement which may be strangled at birth by the media.

It has been suggested that the weight of the crimes committed by Bill Clinton are not commensurate with the obscene weight of the prosecutorial forces brought to bear.

The central assertion seems so believable, but in the context of Washington so squalidly small and venial, that it once again suggests the scenario of the Clintons slugging it out against the establishment which has always despised them. In a world of sedans and town cars, the Clintons have always had a white stretch limo without tinted windows.

By the time perspective grips the media, however, it could be too late for the Clintons. Clinton could resign quickly into a twilight of uncomfortable martyrdom, leaving Kenneth Starr to explain it all. There is nothing in Mr Clinton's past to suggest he will do that. In times of trouble (and in times with interns) he operates like a rat in heat.

It is entirely possible that Mr Clinton will spin out of this one, but the confluence of so many venal sins will cripple him till the end, one suspects. If he escapes Lewinsky, he still has the extravaganza that will be the Paula Jones case and the allegation, gleefully reported in the newly liberated media, that the presidential penis leans to one side. Allegedly, there is harassment and witness-tampering and abuse of position, but it is the sex which has fuelled the media spectacle and it is spectacle itself which has diminished the trust and standing necessary for Clinton to govern.

Clinton is playing for his shot at history. Three years of big ideas and grand themes might just eclipse the memory of the Oral Office era.

And his enemies? When the media get done and realise that "Honey, we shrunk the President", a return to old values and constraints in journalism might be the most appropriate first step in restoring the lustre to American public life.

But first these messages ...

Tom Humphries

From an article by the author published in `The Irish Times'.

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