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Don't Cry for 'Heidigate' Victims--Sex Won't Spoil Success : Scandal: Getting 'caught' in Hollywood hardly has terminal consequences. In Washington, a wink can end your career. Clinton passes up a hit movie.

August 15, 1993|Suzanne Garment | Suzanne Garment, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics" (Times Books).

WASHINGTON — Hollywood is never going to make it as a political force in this country. Not even close. If the fate of Harry Thomason didn't persuade you of that, consider how the movie busi ness has been "convulsed," as one story put it, over Heidi Fleiss.

The most disturbing part of this scandal, in which Heidi is charged with providing prostitutes to studio executives and stars, is not that it reveals shocking immorality in the filmmaking trade. After all, the rest of the country already assumes that anyone connected with the movies is seriously depraved. Nor is it awful that clients allegedly paid Heidi with studio funds that were then written off as productions costs: Every day, the studios spend far larger sums of money with much less concrete benefit.

No, the real problem is that Heidi's story is so--well, bush league. Connie Chung and Penthouse may give a damn, but most civilians do not. It's easy enough to see why.

Take Heidi herself. She is an attractive 27-year-old princess, but she is no show-stopper. She was caught by an undercover policeman posing as a businessman in search of entertainment. On his audio tape we hear Heidi displaying her sophistication: "I know 1% of the wealthiest people and the nicest people in the world . . . or maybe 1/2%." We've seen her on TV, mugging and waving insouciantly at the press. She is clearly hovering somewhere outside the reality zone. When she was arraigned last week, charged with an activity quaintly described as "pandering," she showed up in a simple, elegant Norma Kamali dress accessorized with spike heels. She might as well have been wearing a Day-Glo "Slippery When Wet" sign taped to her chest.

Yet, very rich and famous people hung around with Heidi, and she could get good tables at nice restaurants.

Studio moguls and well-known actors are said to have been Heidi's customers. Though this news is not morally startling, we outsiders naively wonder why such people have to pay for sex, at least directly. But we are told that a good number of these big Hollywood types find it intolerably bothersome to have to put up with all that romance stuff--calling on the telephone, saying nice things, making dates. With Heidi, they could exercise power without incurring any corresponding obligations.

They liked this narcissistic deal so much that they threw caution to the winds to keep doing it. Clients identified themselves by their real names, went to Heidi's parties, gave her their phone numbers and talked with her in telephone conversations that, as even the wettest-behind-the-ears baby politico in Washington would have predicted, were bugged.

But, then, perhaps the lack of caution wasn't so crazy. Maybe the consequences for these fellows won't be so dire as the current hysteria would suggest. We hear that marriages and careers will be wrecked if and when Heidi finds someone to pay a million dollars for her client book. Marriages, maybe. But careers? Remember, Hollywood is the place where an executive caught and disgraced after forging a substantial check climbed right back to the top again. Do we shy away from the drug addict or spouse abuser? If his next movie is a winner, the miscreant will be pronounced rehabilitated.

National politics is more sobering than Hollywood as a place to watch or experience personal scandal.

Yes, some Washington scandals are very Heidi-ish affairs. There has been organized prostitution in Washington. Bobby Baker took care of a fair number of senators. Some say a prostitution ring played a role in Watergate. Rumors still circulate about such enterprises, straight and gay.

But during the 1970s, the difference between nice and not-nice girls shrank, sexual infidelity of any sort, let alone prostitution, became life-threatening for politicians. When Sen. Charles Robb was accused of sexual involvement with Tai Collins, his career was severely damaged. When the press found Gennifer Flowers and vice versa, Bill Clinton barely escaped with his political life.

In fact, you can get into grave trouble in Washington today for committing wrongs that no other community has the paranoid imagination to envision. You are scandal fodder if you let someone spend too much money on you at lunch, or if you call an ex-colleague in government too soon after you have left the public payroll, or if your blind trust is not blind enough, or if you tell the truth but not the whole truth to a congressional committee or if you make improper remarks to a member of the opposite sex.

And when we say "trouble," we mean the real thing--not just embarrassment but electoral challenges, official investigation and often a genuine threat of incarceration. Prostitution? Partying at the home of a known call girl? Making assignations on a car phone where your political enemies, let alone a universe of opportunists, can listen in? Are you crazy?

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