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I Want My ImpeachTV

Our congressmen are so busy getting ready for their career-making close-ups, they've hardly noticed that TV, in this age of cable and Internet, is no longer Watergate-ready.

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With hardly a moment to spare, it looks like we just might get the real trial of the century.

Watching the debate in the Judiciary Committee on the eve of the vote to commence the impeachment inquiry, you could see the excitement really building. The members became almost handsome in their umbrage. Such moral swelling, such Daniel Websterism, is where the political will comes from to buck the polls and disrupt the good times and to talk about another man's sexuality -- and, hence, inevitably your own. (The answer to the frequent question, "Are these guys from another planet?" is yes, one populated by voters -- that influential minority that skews older, more socially conservative, and more disapproving of Bill Clinton than the rest of us -- who will voir dire a jury on November 3.) What we are witnessing is the most basic of political traits -- to want to have greatness thrust upon oneself. It would take a personality unsuited to politics not to run into the embrace of such a rendezvous with destiny.

This destiny -- in its most operatic sense -- depends, of course, upon the media having a similar appreciation of its historic mission. Great trials need not only great defendants but also fabulous coverage. You can't have a public burning without an appropriately attentive public. It's this expectation on the part of the Judiciary Committee members about the nature of the media's treatment of the coming trial that may be out of sync with reality.

It may be so out of sync that the media circus, which entertains not just voters but an infinitely more democratic spectrum, could well invert the best-laid plans and turn would-be statesmen into buffoons, liars into virtuous men, and fundamentalists into pornographers (whoops -- already happened).

Transparently, every member of the Judiciary Committee has in mind the gravity, augustness, solemnity, and career-shaping power of the Watergate hearing room. Small-time political hacks (Peter Rodino was a ward politician from Newark, New Jersey) were transformed into statesmen; overnight, men with nowheresville political careers (the hard truth about a House seat) achieved immortality in their profession. Given the opportunity, who wouldn't vote for such a Cinderella tale?

You've got to suspect, though, that these 1998 Judiciary Committee members have no idea that the media game has majorly changed since 1974. Dollars to doughnuts, most of these guys have no appreciation for the networks' 25-year decline in market share, from almost the entire television audience then to less than 60 percent of it now. What that means for the networks is that they can't just interrupt their regular schedule; they can't just do what cable does. And what it means for the Congress is that it can't produce its own drama.

The Watergate Judiciary Committee hearings took seven months -- from January 1974 to July 1974. Rodino, like Henry Hyde, had promised to do it in three months. So we may fairly assume that the Monica Committee won't vote a bill of impeachment until, at the earliest, February or March. Then, impeachment in the full house will be the opportunity for the 398 non?Judiciary Committee members to grab their face time. Then there's the trial in the Senate, where the entire investigation will be replayed. The whole process can't possibly be completed in less than eighteen months. At that point, unless some equivalent of the Nixon tapes turns up (don't they have security cameras in the White House? videotape?), the proceedings will get dragged out to the end of Clinton's term.

Tell that to CBS president Mel Karmazin (busy denying rumors that he's getting ready to sell CBS News). The kind of coverage given to the Watergate hearings, if it were applied to Monica, would bankrupt the networks today -- their audience share would drop through the floor.

So remove the networks' gavel-to-gavel Watergate-style coverage (those Watergate months were the most warming and wonderful television experience of my life) from the Monica tale. Then ask yourself: Can we really impeach the president just on cable?


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