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The sideshows take center stage

At his joint news conference with the president of China, Bill Clinton made an entirely appropriate remark about the press: "I think it would amaze many of our Chinese guests to see some of the things that have been written and said about me."

Sometimes he says things about my business that are self-serving or self-pitying. This time, he is dead on. You don't have to be Chinese to be amazed at the things that find their way into print and onto the home screen these days.

As to whose fault it is that the public is hearing more than it may want to know about the president's anatomy, there is considerable, if not enlightening, discussion. Is it because we have a president who gets himself into sex scrapes? Or because he has a lawyer who went on national television to discuss in detail the president's private parts? Is it the fault of the newspapers that say they have to take note of something that has been on the networks or in the tabloids? Is it because a jaded public demands more and more pornography? Should newspapers and networks get together and say they are simply not going to print any below-the-belt presidential information unless it comes from the man himself?

The New York Times did not feel constrained to print anything about the president's genitals. I ran into the new publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., at a press party and asked him if this was the result of a policy on such matters on the part of the newspaper whose motto is "All the news that's fit to print." He gave an evasive answer and then said simply, "We try not to be tacky." That, come to think of it, would be an excellent masthead mantra for the '90s.

The New Yorker magazine tried to be tacky about the problem and succeeded. It produced a triumph of indecent exposure. Jeffrey Toobin, the chic, tell-all journalist, has written a lengthy piece about the Paula Jones case. He gives a clinical report about the president's anatomy, and its "distinguishing characteristics" as attested to by Paula Jones. It is Clinton disrobed.

Toobin began speaking out of turn when he was a young lawyer on the staff of Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh. He quit early to write an insider's book about the scandal. Walsh pleaded with him to withhold publication until after the Oliver North trial, but Toobin went ahead. Was there a similar attempt at deterrence in this case? Not, as Eliza Doolittle said, "bloody likely."

The New Yorker's British-born editor, Tina Brown, pioneered in toplessness when she took over. She published a series of pictures of glum, droopy bare-breasted women for no visible reason except to tell her readers that propriety was the last thing on her mind. Now she is breaking the barrier of tastelessness, to what end she does not say. Perhaps to show the tabs that they have no monopoly on salaciousness. The people's right to know stops somewhere short of what we're getting. It's like opening the bathroom door on someone. Surely the president deserves as much privacy as everyone else.

The character issue alibi cannot be used in this case. The voters went through two elections knowing something of the president's sexual proclivities. But twice they went the European way _ they judged only his on-the-job conduct.

The New York Post ran a front page story on the "distinguishing characteristics." So did the Washington Times, complete with Jones' diagnosis as to what caused the distinction.

Whatever else she may be, she is not a doctor _ she doesn't even play one on television. Other than complicating the lives of parents who try to discourage their young children from public discussion of sex organs, what purpose is served other than the obvious one of humiliating the president?

Television is telling children that all that matters is being famous. Celebrity worship is rampant in the studios. The other morning, Today show viewers were startled to hear the amiable Katie Couric oozing sympathy all over Marv Albert, the sex offender.

Poor dear, she kept saying, you must have been afraid that another surprise witness _ like the second victim who testified _ "would come crawling out of the woodwork." Only vermin, then, would give this famous person a hard time? Albert, who after all pleaded guilty, is making the transition from creep to martyr with the help of his friends in show biz. Barbara Walters will soon give him absolution. Ditto Larry King. Be known, no matter what for. It's the only thing that counts.

Talk shows regularly feature as judges of ethical political conduct Dick Morris, the scummy former presidential adviser, and Ed Rollins, who turns on his clients. There are, we hear, honorable campaign consultants but they seldom get on _ not famous enough.

The president, for once, understated. What's going on is amazing. But appalling might be a better word.

Universal Press Syndicate