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The Tabloid Traumas of the Talk-Show President : When You Live by the Culture . . .

May 15, 1994|Steven D. Stark | Steven D. Stark, who has written for the Atlantic, is a commentator on National Public Radio

BOSTON — Whether or not you believe Paula Corbin Jones' charges against Bill Clinton, the filing of a lawsuit against a U.S. President for personal behavior--on raunchy sexual-harassment charges no less--constitutes a unique turn in American culture and history.

A century ago, Grover Cleveland may have been identified as the father of Maria Halpin's illegitimate son, but no one thought of hauling him into court to answer for his behavior. Even if Jones' charges are found to be untrue, few relish the spectacle of a President possibly having to plead immunity or be deposed about his private life.

To many, the Jones lawsuit is just another sign the country is going to hell in a handbasket. Maybe so. Still, a number of cultural and political developments that brought us to this juncture are worth examining--if only to understand how we got here.

First, the suit is the culmination of a diminution of the stature of the presidency, due both to the end of the Cold War and changes in mass communication. From 1945-1990, the Cold War led to an increase in executive power. What's more, because Presidents can act in foreign policy largely unimpeded by congressional critics, they tended to be preoccupied by it. Before Clinton, virtually all Presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt devoted much time to foreign policy. With the end of the Cold War, however, the importance of a strong foreign-policy leader has diminished.

This postwar rise in presidential power coincided with the growth of broadcasting--allowing Presidents to go over the heads of Congress. This, too, created a more powerful and "personal" presidency (in Theodore J. Lowi's phrase), as Presidents became our prime political movers, supplanting the party. Now, however, with the rise of cable "narrowcasting," the President's ability to sway the nation has been curtailed. With more competition over the airwaves, presidential speeches now often draw roughly two-thirds the audience they drew only 15 years ago. That, too, weakens the presidency.

Clinton's response has been to take his presidency on the road with televised town meetings--becom-ing, in effect, his own cable network and an even more "personal" President. Yet, by closing the distance between himself and the people with a "talk-show presidency," Clinton has allowed the office to become further demystified. It's not an exaggeration to contend that a President who reveals to an MTV audience that he wears briefs rather than boxers is likelier to be sued by someone alleging he may have improperly taken off those briefs.

Second, this action represents the culmination of a decades-long trend in which the line between entertainment and politics has blurred. Clinton hardly started the trend: Woodrow Wilson entertained D. W. Griffith at the White House; John F. Kennedy's presidency was a press agent's dream, and Ronald Reagan treated the presidency as the role of a lifetime.

It's hardly news that Washington has become a kind of Hollywood on the Potomac--where the image of what happens is far more important that what actually transpires. It's now a world where leaders are measured almost solely by popularity polls; where candidates are judged by how well-groomed and glib they appear in TV debates, and where David Letterman and Jay Leno are the Walter Lippmanns of the day.

In this atmosphere, it's no surprise that the press and public now treat their leaders in much the same fashion they deal with their entertainment icons. Hollywood stars are in the business of image, so when the image shatters, it's big news to the public--and rightfully so.

Sadly, the same rules now apply to Clinton. The real precedents for this scandal aren't Cleveland's political travails but the show-biz troubles of Fatty Arbuckle and Michael Jackson (down to tabloid details of anatomy).

To be sure, there are other currents at work. We recently concluded a period of mourning when there were constant reminders of how much Richard M. Nixon's Watergate lessened respect for the presidency. Thanks, in part, to the legacy of the baby boomers--who grew up distrusting all paternal symbols--all authority figures tend not to command as much respect as they once did.

Because of the baby-boom generation, which defined the personal as political, private behavior comes under increasing scrutiny. As respect for official authority has declined, there's more of a tendency for Americans to resort to legal remedies. In an age of narcissism, lawsuits are the counterpart to consciousness-raising or health clubs.

The press has obviously played a role. With the growth of tabloid journalism, the news has become a kind of national gallery of vileness. This is due, in part, to what might be called--for lack of a better term--the pornographication of American culture. Throughout the culture, standards for public discourse about sex have widened considerably--even in legal complaints.

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