To watch press coverage of Bill Clinton for the past three weeks is to have an eerie feeling that even among the heretofore hardened 89-percent pro-Clinton media, there is a growing feeling that the gig is up.
For five years, the networks enforced an anti-Clinton scandal rule: nothing this administration ever did was presented as damaging to Clinton's impregnable war-room defenses, no matter how serious. He was slick. But not corrupt. When Monicagate erupted, the media paradigm shifted: within hours, reporters were quickly parsing the gaps in a flustered Clinton's legalistic remarks like "there is no sexual relationship." But it only took a few days before the paradigm shifted back into (repeat after me) "Ken Starr is out of control" once Clinton delivered his finger-wagging "that woman" lie and Hillary went on television to claim the vast right-wing conspiracy was behind it all. From last January through mid-August, that same theme - Clinton the victim, Starr the villain - was reported endlessly.
It all changed again the weekend prior to The Speech. With the President slated to testify on Monday morning, the coverage became suddenly somber. The political jousting was irrelevant. Now it was purely legal. And dead serious. Almost everyone expected the President to deliver a slick, Swaggartesque, now-feel-my-pain masterpiece. When instead he gave an unconvincing mishmash of legalistic admissions and contemptuous Starr-bashing, media jaws dropped. Clinton's false mea culpa flopped not only with the public, but also - for the first time - with the press.
On CBS's "Sunday Morning," substitute host Harry Smith surveyed the wreckage: "There was an awful lot of judging done this week, grading the President on his character, on his leadership in a time of crisis, his capacity to govern after his humiliating speech to the American people on Monday evening. Every word he speaks, every action he takes is being scrutinized through a prism of cynicism. Is this the way Bill Clinton is destined to be viewed through his time in office?"
Rita Braver explained: "To try to help us sort through it all, we talked to some prominent and thoughtful Americans." In another time, we'd snicker at their liberals-only list: Mario Cuomo, historian Douglas Brinkley (author of a book rehabilitating Jimmy Carter), and UPI White House reporter Helen Thomas. But the subject was no longer politics, but ethics - and these liberals were clearly troubled.
Thomas wondered why Clinton would ruin his presidency so recklessly, and about the best thing she could say is "he's still got a little bit of an edge on Nixon." Brinkley suggested people were laughing at Clinton's back-to-business line. Cuomo could muster only this defense: "You're sailing the ship of state through troubled waters. You have a captain who's very good at being a captain. Now you find out the captain is an S.O.B. who's disloyal to his wife, who's unkind to his closest friends. What do you do, dismiss the captain? And say let the ship sail without our good captain? That's foolish."
In this new paradigm, the old categories are crumbling. Some Republicans are fearing a sex-story backlash from the Geraldos and Salon-site parrots. Some Democrats are so furious with Clinton they want him gone yesterday. The new distinctions that matter, at least until the Starr report threatens another paradigm shift, are not liberal vs. conservative, or Republican vs. Democrat, but moralized vs. de-moralized.
In the de-moralized camp, combine defeatist conservatives who think Clinton can get away with anything with an apathetic public with no appetite for outrage. Through their silence, they give comfort to the hard-core Clintonistas who continue to promote falsehoods (or silence) based on the calculation that they can get away with it
In the moralized corner, collect Democrats like Pat Moynihan and Paul McHale and Republicans like Bob Barr and Dan Burton who are demanding justice be served. Add to this camp a growing number of journalists who are demonstrating remarkable integrity in their coverage of this mess.
The moralized can take their cue from the media of old, who flaunted their idealism when Iran-Contra ruled the political news. Bill Moyers proclaimed in the companion book to his 1988 PBS series "The Secret Government" that "None of us, not even the President, can pick or choose among the laws we wish to obey. A President who is nonchalant about this contract deserves to be impeached. A people who forget it will have invited the darkness."
The irony is overwhelming, and perhaps too hard to handle for journalists who cut their teeth on Vietnam and Watergate, but they are now in the same camp as "Clinton haters" in presenting the case for idealism. Vietnam and Watergate were not proud moments for America, but the media presented the job to be done as an idealistic task: prove the system worked. If the President has contempt for the rule of law, he must not stand.