I Want My ImpeachTV

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’$2 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?

A good guess is that more than 60 percent of the country won’t watch the trial of the century at all – they’ll stick with Ally McBeal’s litigation schedule.

Of course, the other hundreds of media outlets that service the networks’ orphaned market share, will, in a bewildering cacophony, saturate the cable-news-watching audience with the Monica trial. Such saturation, however, runs counter to the interests of high and majestic drama. The pacing will be all off. It won’t be the spare few hours a day of the Watergate hearings. It will be every hour filled with Monica.

The marvelous thing about the Watergate broadcasts (media, life, government – all in harmony) is that you were always left wanting more. The dramatic build-up was perfect. The pageant was played out artfully and circumspectly. (The Watergate committee teased out the truth: Mr. Butterfield, were you aware of any recording devices in the oval office?) But with Monica, there will be no careful control of the feed. Not only will the information flow without inhibition, it will flow through the hands of a multitude of producers: right-wing producers, tabloid producers, pro-president producers, feel-the-pain producers – just find your political-psycho-cultural demographic on the dial.

Other than Rabbi Korff, his eccentric and persistent defender, there were very few Nixon spinners, and few opportunities to spin. Hence, without much objection, we had a steady, ineluctable movement toward consensus and destiny. Now the whole gang – Larry King, Chris Matthews, Geraldo “A coup-d’état is taking place” Rivera, etc., along with their various substitutes (I feel not enough attention has been paid to Marcia Clark’s career path and facial surgery), and their rotating series of media-trained pro and con guests – stands in the way of clarity and agreement.

Another element of the current media dynamic that many of the solemn and destiny-inspired members of the Judiciary Committee have yet to fully process, I’d wager, is the rogue nature of the Internet. Count on it: Any member of the committee who can be outed will be. That girl, that night when the plane got held over … the contributor’s wife … An outing is in the future, too, for the national broadcast journalists covering the proceedings … What network news star can’t give a straight report because she’s obsessed with her husband’s infidelities? … Ouch.

But I feel that I’m talking this down. That I’m implying that a trivialization of the process (Macmillan, by the way, is preparing an Impeachment for Idiots book) means that the Clinton trial will be less than captivating and consuming, or even that the Republicans might be persuaded to call it off. That is certainly not what I want to be saying. Quite the opposite: I believe this baby is really going to fly. Years from now, we’ll keep returning to this time. This trial is going to be what we remember about our lives.

It’s just that it won’t be like Watergate; it won’t be majestic; it won’t play as a grim constitutional drama. It will be more like O.J. – O.J. times ten or twenty, producing an even more memorable cast of semi-comic characters (Lucianne Goldberg!) who will come to inhabit our dreams as well as the national psyche.

And yes, the Clinton trial will polarize into a race issue, too – seriously! It will be the rest of us, blacks, women, and anybody with a sexual hankering or doubt, against the white men. While the white men will try to make this about the moral certitudes of lying or not, the Clinton defenders will have a more interesting and embracing story about tolerance and emotional nuance, and about living with our inner conflicts – really! (i.e., in this corner an impossible standard, in that corner all the well-known, best-liked human frailties). We’ll wring one more encore out of the century’s big theme: erotically charged, charisma-responsive, racially mixed urban America against the small-town, religious, low-aspiration, repressed white bulwark. Yes!

Because the jury is stacked with those white men, Clinton, unlike O.J., could very well go down – but as a martyr to desire. On the other hand, the media circus, the likes of which these small-town politicians can’t possibly begin to imagine – a circus that will not transform them into statesmen but into some wonderful late-night jokes – may save him. As I say, imagine O.J. times ten or twenty – figure we’ll see a few of these guys break ranks and run.

“How can this be happening?” is still the near-universal question. Or even: “Is this really happening?” Because it moves forward in an air of unreality as well as illogic. On those days when there is no news, or just a restrained report, you can almost feel it’s going away. Then slam, a new report, and it’s back again in full, angry, righteous force.

So now it’s time to get prepared.

The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin, who covered the O.J. trial, has a deal with Random House to write about the Monica mess. Michael Isikoff, at Newsweek, has a deal, too. The pundit land grab has begun. Even Lucianne Goldberg’s son – having acquitted himself well on Larry King – has a deal. All rights to the big kahuna – Monica herself – are about to be landed by News Corp. I called my agent. I’m thinking about the Dominick Dunne role. If there has to be a trial, I’d like a seat in a prominent row.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com

I Want My ImpeachTV