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Media Hungry for Clinton Chroniclers

August 20, 1998|PAUL D. COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At a time like this, the thirst for news gives way to a quest for something more elusive--insight. How and why did this happen? And what's next? Indeed, insight has become a commodity, vital to the media's all-news engine as it grinds around the clock.

As a result, there's a demand for authors and print journalists who have studied Bill Clinton and his complexities for longer than the last seven months.

Gail Sheehy, a contributing editor with Vanity Fair and author of the new "Understanding Men's Passages" (Random House), put Monday's grilling of the president in an especially menacing light during an early-evening interview on CNN.

Sheehy said the day's events constituted "a great assault" on Clinton's psychological defense system.

"So here we have him," she said, "for the first time, being cornered and forced, in a way, to take down that wall between public and private and confront his own soul and confront his family, confront his wife. I think it must be a very, very--extremely painful and possibly dangerous time for the country, because we don't want to have a president who is psychologically shaky."

David Maraniss, a reporter with the Washington Post, won a Pulitzer Prize five years ago for his pieces on candidate Clinton and went on to write "First in His Class," a biography that lays out the brilliance and the flaws commingled in the president's character.

"It was classic Bill Clinton," Maraniss said on NBC after the president's Map Room address Monday night. He went on to observe that time and again, the president has shown "a remarkable ability to come back and recover."

Maraniss, whose book has about 150,000 copies in print between its Simon & Schuster hardcover and Touchstone paperback editions, has proved so valuable in assessing Clinton's moves that he has a short-term agreement to appear only on NBC and its cable networks.

The week also has been a boon period for historians, presidential division, whose scholarly books might not otherwise lend themselves to five-minute doses of TV chatter.

Alan Brinkley, whose latest work is "Liberalism and Its Discontents" (Harvard), assured Dan Rather on Monday: "Even the most scandalous presidencies tend to be remembered for things other than the scandals."

By contrast, Douglas Brinkley, a prolific historian whose new book is "The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter's Journey Beyond the White House" (Viking), said of Clinton's legacy on MSNBC Monday that "the scandals have overtaken his accomplishments at this stage."

One of the more inspired bits of casting Monday night was Tom Brokaw's conversation on NBC with a quartet that included Ellen Levine, the savvy editor in chief of Good Housekeeping, and Jacquelyn Mitchard, the syndicated columnist and author of the family-centered novel "The Deep End of the Ocean" (Signet).

Levine recalled that people were mad at Lee Hart, wife of presidential candidate Gary Hart, when she stuck with him after his relationship with Donna Rice set off a media frenzy in 1987. Now, Levine went on, people are "more sophisticated" and don't want to see a marriage or a family break up.

Mitchard, touted by Brokaw as a voice of the Midwest, likewise steered the discussion to one who was unseen Monday night, saying she regretted the assault "on the dignity of Hillary Clinton."

This week's news also has given face time to experts on racier matters.

Wesley O. Hagood, author of "Presidential Sex: From the Founding Fathers to Bill Clinton," got most authors' dream--a few choice minutes on NBC's "Today." Speaking with co-host Matt Lauer on Tuesday, Hagood said he believed philandering presidents have shared the view that extramarital sex is a perk of high office.

The Monica Lewinsky affair has provided a fresh marketing hook for books like "Presidential Sex," which was first published by the down-market Birch Lane Press in 1995, then revised and updated for the publisher's Citadel Press paperback edition released in the spring. Amazon.com, the online bookseller, notes that customers who ordered "Presidential Sex" also have bought Seymour M. Hersh's "The Dark Side of Camelot" (Back Bay), the journalist's investigation of John F. Kennedy's reckless private life and its effect on his public performance.

WOR-AM's (710) "Rambling With Gambling," one of the top-rated morning shows on the New York dial, heard on Tuesday from another Citadel Press author, psychologist Paul M. Fick. His book, "The Dysfunctional President," originated in 1995 with the subtitle "Inside the Mind of Bill Clinton." Too tame. The revised paperback edition is subtitled "Understanding the Compulsions of Bill Clinton." (Cut again to Amazon.com, which says the book has been ordered by those who also bought Gennifer Flowers' "Sleeping With the President.")

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