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CLINTON UNDER FIRE | REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

Coming to a Screen Near You: A Reel-Life Political Soap Opera

Interest: Allegations confronting Clinton prove that facts can be as strange as fiction, but seldom duller.

January 27, 1998|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The plot of President Clinton's travails seems, day by day, to edge into make-believe. But still no hero is emerging.

One minute the nation hears allegations of the president having sex with a White House intern. Then we learn the young woman's mom fantasizes she's intimate with an opera singer. Soon a literary agent surfaces who describes her desire to take after the president with a deer rifle. And not surprisingly, the latest to arrive on the screen, rather, scene, is a Hollywood producer, a pal of the president's whose been called in for advice.

But who needs Hollywood with this cast of characters?

Many Washington movie audiences, particularly in the nation's capital, are laughing and gasping at the verisimilitude of "Wag the Dog," along with trailers for "Primary Colors," another too-close-for-comfort political satire.

Yet Americans didn't need to pay to see political soap operas when a better one was playing out free on television.

In fact, Washington is beginning to suspect that Hollywood is merely creating by tape-loop, recycling into pricey screenplays what it hears free on the evening news.

Gary Ross, the elegant writer of such one-name screenplays as "Dave" and "Big," said Hollywood bashers simply get it wrong.

"What people like Bob Dole never understood is that we really reflect the culture, we don't drive it as much," said Ross. And if the political process in America had not already become so grotesque, Ross added, "we wouldn't have such an easy time satirizing it."

His creative juices roiling, Ross offered his portrayal of the current drama, revealing his own sympathy for Clinton: "In this situation, you have a special prosecutor with limitless power who thinks it's OK to hound and dog a president on anything he considers remotely germane, including the president's sex life. That's not a hard thing to satirize."

*

Far Gone . . .

At a Georgetown farewell party for Jeff Greenfield, who left ABC for CNN, the political analyst joked with his friend Ted Koppel about how far they'd come--or fallen.

Koppel opened a TV show last week with this astonishing statement about the crisis: "It may come down to the question of whether oral sex does or does not constitute adultery."

Greenfield reminded Koppel that a few years ago, the "Nightline" host balked at doing a report on a consensual sodomy case in Georgia. According to witnesses, Koppel said wryly, "That's progress," and shot Greenfield his signature heard-it-all-before look.

*

Parrr--ty . . .

The difficulty of explaining the current batch of news to children came home to a Manhattan mother the other day when her kindergartner returned from a pricey private school. "I hear there's a fair at the White House, Mommy," the child said. "I bet they have great rides."

*

"So if this is gonna happen every 24 years, I'm moving!"

It's deja vu all over again at the Watergate complex, flash point of the 1970s Republican scandal of the same name.

Now it's the '90s, and the Democrats' turn. Somewhere inside is the apartment of the mother of former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky; outside are throngs of reporters waiting for . . . anything.

The ordinarily cunning corps of reporters is, perplexingly, staking out the front door.

"Nobody in their right mind," said resident Betty Rosenberg, "would be going out the door. We all drive our cars out of the garage, instead."

And a Mrs. Sobol--just Mrs. Sobol, thank you--returned from vacation Sunday to find a surprisingly well-behaved media throng.

"They are quiet and orderly," Sobol said.

As for the notoriety of her abode, "We have Richard Nixon to thank for that." said Sobol. She does regret the media's obsession with this new story.

"I personally don't give a damn who my president slept with," she said. Or, presumably, where.

*

Yo, Hipsters!

Hey, kids! You too could get Lewinsky's perks--and no special prosecutor will call!

The Web magazine Squire, published by, for and about the "water carriers" who are Washington interns and young staffers, took Vernon E. Jordan Jr. up on his declaration that he helped Lewinsky find a job because he "believes in giving a helping hand."

Squire subscribers read a tongue-in-cheek ad quoting Jordan and suggesting they send him resumes. "Help him help YOU!" urged the memo on a fake "Vernon Jordan, Career Counselor" letterhead. "An Ambassador or Cabinet Secretary will contact you within 24 hours."

"From a water carrier's perspective, we thought [Jordan's statement] was very, very amusing," said Squire Publisher Robert K. Arena Jr., once a presidential campaign volunteer.

But seriously, Webbers, the scandal "is just the symptom of a larger problem," he said. After all, this is a city where others take credit for interns' work, hit on them for dates and take advantage of their eagerness to get ahead.

Squire's description of a typical intern or low-level staffer experience: being treated "like second- and third-class citizens" and perceived as "slave labor."

Times staff writers Mary Curtius and Cecilia Balli contributed to this story.

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