More Froggy Than The French
By Michael Kinsley
(TIME, February 9) -- Should the President's sex life be the subject of public discussion and debate? A surprising number of Americans seem to be taking what is regarded as the French view: that a politician should be judged by his public record, not his private affairs. Many Americans, it turns out, believe the allegations that President Clinton enjoyed oral sex in the White House from a 21-year-old intern and don't care.
This could mean another reversal in the press's thinking about whether to report on politicians' sexual misbehavior. Traditionally the American press has not dealt in such stuff. J.F.K.'s goings-on are the leading example. The ostensible reason was that private conduct is irrelevant. The real reason was nearly the opposite: fear that voters would find it all too relevant and might actually vote against a guy just because he was cheating on his wife. That, of course, would be wrong and unfair. So journalists protected democracy from itself by denying the mass of citizens dangerous information they weren't sophisticated enough to ignore.
In recent years, for various reasons and to the dismay of many journalists (believe it or not), this self-censorship has weakened. Politicians' sex lives have become fair game, though the mainstream press remains queasy. Now it turns out that the public may be up to the challenge of ignoring this stuff after all.
Call this attitude sophisticated or call it decadent -- or call it French. One ironic result is that journalists may be able to go back to the practice of not reporting such matters, on the legitimate ground that people really don't seem to care. For better or worse, it seems to be the journalists who are making way too much of a Victorian fuss about the President's alleged misbehavior and the rest of the citizenry who are taking it all in stride and keeping it in perspective.
It would be silly to suggest that people actually don't care about dirty doings by powerful pols. They may not let it affect their vote, but it would be superhuman not to find it darned interesting. "Is it interesting?" remains the most important test of newsworthiness. "Is it true?" is also important, naturally. But assuming a story about a politician's peccadilloes is true -- assuming it's interesting is almost superfluous -- should the media report it? That depends on a third test: Is there a public interest (in the sense of a stake, not mere curiosity) that justifies the invasion of privacy?
Keep in mind that usually the privacy of at least two people is at stake, including one who didn't give it up by running for office. The countervailing public interest is usually defined as a concern about our political leaders' "character." This muddy concept has been used to justify almost any conceivable invasion of privacy. But it does incorporate two narrower but valid concerns.
One is that most varieties of philandering by middle-aged big shots imply a willingness to use women in a way that suggests an exploitative attitude toward people in general. This offends the American democratic spirit, if not the French version.
The other concern is honesty. Independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr may be abusing his office by forcing Clinton and others either to reveal their darkest secrets or commit perjury. But the lie of the adulterous pol is more than just perjury under oath. Politicians lie when they create a false picture of themselves as devoted family men when they are not. (Sometimes the wives are victims, and sometimes they are co-conspirators in cuckolding the voters.) You may not care whether they are devoted family men, but what does this lie say about their overall willingness to deceive you?
Anyway, the correct test is not whether the journalist cares but whether the citizenry cares. The test for the journalist should not be, "Would I vote against the guy because he may be messing around with a 21-year-old in the West Wing?" The test should be, "Do I think a significant fraction of my readers or viewers might vote against the guy because he may be messing around with a 21-year-old in the West Wing?" It seems the answer may well be no. Thus a final twist: because the public won't "misuse" this information, the press no longer needs to feel tempted to suppress it. But for the same reason -- political irrelevance -- the press may no longer be justified in reporting it.
We'll know the rules have changed if the Monica Lewinsky tale is confirmed, or at least never convincingly disproved, and Clinton survives. Is it possible that an episode as intense as this one can just fade away without fundamentally changing anything? Sure. Remember the Gulf War? (Correct answer: Just barely.) Remember how quickly it faded? And remember how it was supposed to make George Bush invincible -- just as the current psychodrama is supposed to make Clinton unsalvageable?
It's possible, even probable at the moment, that Clinton will neither be forced out of office nor even be seriously crippled by this sordid and comic drama. And if that happens -- whatever you may think about it -- at least we won't have to take any more world-weary guff from the French.