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We Just Can't Get Our Fill of Dirty Laundry

Scandal: What's with the national obsession with the sexual exploits of public figures? Maybe there's a lack of any real controversy. Or, maybe, it's just immaturity.

June 15, 1997|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Paula Jones. President Clinton. Marv Albert. Frank Gifford. Michael Kennedy. And, it seems, every single officer in the entire United States military.

Sex, sex, sex.

Is anybody thinking about anything else? Has anyone given two moments of thought to the economy, the Congo, tax cuts or Little League baseball? Does anyone remember when "adultery" was a word uttered in confession, not plastered across the front page of respectable newspapers?

The separate scandals play off one another in ways that are most illuminating, if anyone cares to get serious about all this. The fundamental question: Is there a particular reason why the summer of 1997 has become the season of sex, sin and sleaze?

"Maybe it's that kind of school's out, let's play mentality," said Christopher Lydon, who on Tuesday hosted an adultery hour on his Boston-based syndicated public radio show, "The Connection."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday June 30, 1997 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 2 View Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Scandals--An article in the June 15 Life & Style on attitudes about sex scandals misspelled the name of the Rev. Greg Laurie, a Riverside pastor who commented on the issue.

Lydon opened his program by recalling how Moses returned to Mt. Sinai for the tablets bearing God's commandments. "The good news is, I got him down to 10," Moses told the mortal masses. "The bad news is, adultery's still on the list." Judging from the responses of his "normally laid-back and tolerant" listeners, Lydon said, the list has not changed.

"What was interesting to me was that so many people were of the stoning cast of mind. People were very unforgiving. You could feel among our listeners a real yearning for old-fashioned rules, specifically about sex. They wanted an enforcement of standards," Lydon said. On the subject of adultery and loosened sexual mores, "People feel that the world really changed in the late '60s, and it's time to change it back."

No kidding, agreed Greg Lowrie, pastor of interdenominational, evangelical Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside. "As the Bible would say," said Lowrie, referring to "the great social and sexual experimentation" of the 1960s, "you sow the wind and you reap the whirlwind."

On the other hand, Lowrie said, obsessing over such weighty national issues as whether the president has a mark on his anatomy is not entirely without social benefit. "The unhealthy interest is that people are always interested in the personal lives of public figures and celebrities. They like to realize that these people that they look up to and admire face a lot of the same problems that they face," Lowrie said.

In focusing on high-level infidelity, the pastor continued, "it's not just the sexual sin we're talking about, but also the deception that always accompanies adultery--the covering of your tracks. If they lie about that, why wouldn't they lie about something else? These are public figures we're talking about. Can they be trusted?"

Except that public figures have been messing around for as long as there have been public figures. Since when was trust an issue for randy fellows like Alexander or Napoleon? Now those were military leaders whose escapades only heightened their credibility. (Of course, they had real battles to wage.) Or, more recently, there was the example of French President Francois Mitterrand, whose mistress stood alongside his wife at his state funeral.

Americans, said University of California, Berkeley sociology professor Kristin Luker, are peculiar in allowing sexual issues to become "flash points," where suddenly, and often to their mutual disdain and embarrassment, hostile factions such as archconservatives and fierce feminists find themselves in bed together, so to speak.

"When you look at our political parties, there's not always a lot of difference in terms of the big issues," Luker said. "One of the reasons we're so interested in this other stuff is that there's no real politics in politics. Everybody's in favor of the balanced budget amendment. Everybody's upset about Rwanda. And no one can do anything." So sex, and the way powerful adults trip themselves up with it, "in a way is politics with a human face," Luker said. "It speaks to people's sense of being overwhelmed."

Or maybe it just sells newspapers, tabloid and otherwise, not that educated people are always finding it so easy to make the distinction these days. Take something like the Paula Jones story. "I think it's a boring story," scoffed Tony Frost, editor of Globe, the tabloid publication that brought us the scandal over Frank Gifford's fidelity. "I've never regarded it as a tabloid story, it's a mainstream story."

In case you were wondering about the difference: "It's a mainstream story because we know that nothing took place in the hotel room. Even by her own admission, very little took place in the hotel room. There was no sex act. What that story becomes, it becomes a story of repercussions--a story of what the alleged meeting of Paula Jones and President Clinton means to the future of the presidency. Whereas what our readers, what tabloid readers want to know is: What happened in the hotel room?"

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