Squawking Points

Again, it starts: Forward comes Monica Lewinsky, de-Ginsburged and riding the wings of some real pros, to cut her deal with Ken Starr, and in files the pundit parade. This is the end; it’s curtains; the man can’t face the American people – repeated over and over on cable channels with viewerships smaller than the circulations of most magazines. One night last week, I flipped around and saw, at the same time, Pat Buchanan, Bay Buchanan, Chris Matthews – once a likable galoot whose face has been frozen these last months in some mixture of fury and constipation – and someone named Mark Levin of the conservative Landmark Legal Foundation (this Levin performed the miracle of appearing on two channels at once). Their verdict, of course, was unanimous.

It was the same verdict announced with such thundering melodrama by David Gergen on Nightline: “This is becoming his Vietnam.” His what?! Forget the deaths of 2 million Vietnamese, as we know all real Americans are supposed to do. Does Gergen really mean to say that Bill Clinton’s physical urges and presumed deceits are on a par with the deaths of 56,000 Americans? And does the New York Times, while admitting that Gergen’s comparison was “apocalyptic,” actually mean to endorse this analogy on its editorial page? Aside from being tasteless, it’s sloppy history on its face. The Establishment never seriously entertained the idea of impeaching Richard Nixon over the Vietnam War. For that you need extramarital sex and civil-trial perjury. You know – things that happen a thousand times a day across this great land.

It would behoove everyone, as we await Clinton’s August 17 testimony, to recall the self-regarding absurdities of late-January punditspeak. Here was Sam Donaldson on ABC on January 25: “If he’s not telling the truth, I think his presidency is numbered in days. This isn’t going to drag out. We’re not going to be here three months from now talking about this.” Donaldson foresaw a resignation “perhaps this week,” and George Will declared Clinton’s presidency “as dead, deader really, than Woodrow Wilson’s was after he had a stroke.”

In the months since this story broke, a consensus developed that the real jewel here was the “talking points.” The memo, if its provenance was Bruce Lindsey or Vernon Jordan, would be the touchstone of an obstruction-of-justice case; without it, the affair and the white lies to cover it couldn’t justify impeachment. William Safire, February 12: “The evidence that strikes dread in the White House is a three-page document called the ‘talking points.’ …” Will, on June 21, called the talking points “the heart of the matter.” The Times, on July 27, called them “central to Mr. Starr’s effort to determine whether obstruction of justice occurred.” In sum: No connection between the talking points and the White House, no case.

Now it’s been reported that Lewinsky has said she wrote the talking points herself. In a world of consistent, rational thought, Will and Howell Raines (Times editorial-page editor) and Safire might now be saying, “If there’s no serious obstruction charge, Starr should cool it,” right? Yes, but in a world of consistent, rational thought, none of this madness would have happened at all. And so, instead of examining their past comments, the tar-and-feather crowd has simply lowered the bar of culpability.

“We just want to see this go away,” poll-aware Republicans and pundits feel obliged to say before they dump out sludge piles of sentences designed precisely not to make it go away. Of course they don’t want it to go away. For Republicans, it’s great sport, in the short run anyway, and for pundits, it’s ratings and celebrity and future book deals and a feeling that our lowly held profession is engaged in vital stuff. They’ve locked their jaws on this, and they can’t let go.

Take Safire. Since January 21, he has devoted 33 columns to Clinton scandals, 25 to every other topic under the sun. It’s worth noting that so far, he’s been wrong about nearly everything: about Travelgate and Filegate and Who-Stole-the-Pencils-From-the-Supply-Roomgate and all the others. Previously, he’d even toyed with the loco idea that Vince Foster was murdered, writing on July 24, 1995, that Foster’s body was found “in a park where he may have shot himself.” Maureen Dowd, since January 21, has written 28 columns about various scandaliana and 27 on other matters, not counting Sunday, which came after my deadline (other pressing topics to which Dowd has devoted her little corner of the single most important page of newsprint in English-language journalism: Warren Beatty, Leonardo DiCaprio, Barbra Streisand, Tina Brown, media self-absorption !, Ally McBeal, and Maureen Dowd – twice).

Then there’s Dowd’s soul mate, Michael Kelly. He has actually written more on other topics, by fourteen to twelve. The fourteen have broadly set forth his reactionary worldview (in May, Kelly wrote that Western man’s pact with Satan began not with gangsta rap or even the Beatles but with … Frank Sinatra!), and the twelve have conveyed the author’s boundless glee at the thought that six years and $40 million have finally turned up something that no normal prosecutor would ever waste public money on.

There are others. Meet the Press host Tim Russert enjoyed a golden reputation up through January 21. Since then, he has given Matt Drudge a platform and been ground into the dirt by Steve Brill. On July 15, Russert went on the Today show telling 4 million viewers that “people close to Ken Starr” were saying Secret Service agents had “facilitated for” Clinton. If you have a glancing familiarity with the now-discredited Troopergate story, you know that “facilitated for” means “pimped for.” Russert clearly implied that his sources were inside the investigation. They weren’t, and by midday – on MSNBC, with a fraction of the Today audience – he had watered it down.

Bill Clinton remains popular, wrote Karen Tumulty in Time, through his survival skills, dumb luck, and chiefly “the wall of silence erected by his personal lawyer, David Kendall.” Exactly, knee-slappingly wrong. Clinton is holding on because the vast majority of the public, unlike Ken Starr, has no trouble distinguishing between a blow job and, say, a break-in at an opposing party’s presidential-campaign headquarters (even if the Times, perhaps trying to stir the ghosts of Watergate, has reduced itself to speculating on whether Clinton “directed a conspiracy” here). He’ll have to answer a few questions more thoroughly. Some developments, involving the famous reappearing dress or the telephone messages, may jolt the public emotionally. And Starr could have evidence we don’t know about. But if what we see now is all there is, then it’s hard to imagine Starr and House Republicans, fearing a backlash in November, swinging public opinion behind impeachment and trial. As University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein puts it: “There are high crimes and misdemeanors, and then there are other things.”

The howling, of course, will continue. Monica’s testimony and the president’s will produce the usual paroxysms of drivel. The gotcha! standard, shifted already with respect to the talking points, will be shifted again, as often as needs doing, to keep the story going. None of this should matter, but in the Age of Drivel, it’s practically all that does.

Squawking Points