So the president has delivered his mea-sort-of-but-not-really-culpa regarding Monicagate and fled to the resort region of coastal Massachusetts, a place so reflexively pro-Clinton that one resident told Mary McGrory he was sure that famous dress stain was actually salad dressing. Until the First Philanderer gets back to town, we'll attend to a nagging question:
Q.: What's worse than the media's coddling of Clinton?
A.: That same coddling accompanied by the media's vilification of his adversaries - Linda Tripp, for example. Pertinent to this is James Hattori's exploration, on the August 6 edition of CNN's "NewsStand," of whether mockery of public figures has grown too vicious of late. The story, which dealt with Tripp at greatest length, included nasty cracks about her from Jay Leno, David Letterman, and lesser-known comics like A. Whitney Brown of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" ("The way [Tripp has] been treated reflects badly on everyone in the media, much the same way her taping of her best friend reflects badly on all ugly, mean, fat women"). The primary voice of restraint was liberal columnist Ellen Goodman, who said, "It sounds fuddy-duddyish... but you know what? Nice people don't say certain things."
Brown denied crossing any lines with his jape. "When I saw [Tripp] whining about people making fun of her appearance," he told Hattori, "my first thought was, 'Man, what a perfect setup that's going to be for a great joke about how fat she is.'" Brown's "Daily Show" colleague Brian Unger declared that Tripp is getting what she deserves: "When you take what [she] did and you examine its essence, there's nothing honorable [or] patriotic about it."
The "NewsStand" story wasn't the only recent rumination on Tripp-bashing. "Politically Incorrect" head writer Chris Kelly wrote in an off-the-wall August 4 New York Times op-ed that Tripp has been treated "not worse, or at least not much worse" than Bill, Hillary, or Monica (she hasn't?); that Tripp suffers from a moral "infirmity" (and Clinton doesn't?); and that Tripp has been targeted not because she's unattractive but "because she is, by her own admission, an informer, a prude, a false friend and a gossip." (Her own admission?)
I have to wonder, though: If you take the professed disdain for Tripp's supposed betrayal of Lewinsky at face value, why aren't the vast majority of the jokes about that very betrayal? Are these comedians and comedy writers so unimaginative, so incapable of witty expressions of moral outrage, that they have to resort to grade-school-level taunts about Tripp's looks? And would comedians be as indignant about what she did, or as cutting about her appearance, if her actions had damaged a Republican administration?
Politics aside, the questions regarding what does and doesn't constitute appropriate satire are complicated indeed. During the '92 presidential campaign this writer took offense at some of the late-night TV attacks on Pat Buchanan. In the midst of the contentious early primaries, Buchanan became regular fodder for Jay Leno, who suggested that the Ku Klux Klan would have "tough choices" deciding between voting for Buchanan or ex-Klansman David Duke; that Buchanan wanted to lease Hitler's bunker "as his campaign headquarters"; and that Buchanan wanted not a third party but "a Third Reich, maybe."
Dennis Miller, who then had a syndicated weeknight show, was having similar fun. Buchanan, according to Miller, was "a fascist journalist whom everybody hates." He yukked that Buchanan was being protected not by the Secret Service but "by the S.S." One night he suggested that "the number of white supremacist groups operating in the United States is up 27 percent ... and that doesn't include the Republican Party, which takes it up above 30 percent."
I suppose that a Clintonite would respond to my objection with empathy; the President has been dragged over the satirical coals mercilessly, and for months. But there is a huge difference: the jokes about Buchanan were not based on truth; the ones about Clinton/Lewinsky are. In Hollywood, however, reality is meaningless. It is the perception of reality that counts, and if the public perceives a certain characteristic about a public figure, that characteristic becomes acceptable fodder. Thus jokes about Buchanan's anti-Semitism are as acceptable as jokes about Clinton's libido.
But this is not just ethically (and morally) wrong, it's dangerous. Like it or not, the power of comedic superstars like Leno and Letterman to affect the popular culture is unmatched. What their millions of viewers receive on a nightly basis as entertainment is considered acceptable discourse. But there are limits. Is it acceptable to make Nazi jokes about Buchanan? No. Is it acceptable to give private individuals like Linda Tripp the same treatment as public officials? No. Is it acceptable to make endless jokes about Clinton's sexual escapades? Yes. And no. After awhile, some things just aren't funny anymore.