The Consumer Republic: Don’t Ask, Please Tell

It took about two weeks for the Lewinsky Affair to be transformed from an investigation into Bill Clinton’s character to an examination of the character of the American people. We have before us the astounding spectacle of a citizenry who has responded to the alleged unzipping of the presidential pants with an outpouring of support that has boosted his approval rating above 70 percent.
It’s driving the pundits mad. For the most part, the media is aghast at a public so besotted by prosperity, benumbed by stability and corroded by cynicism that we turn out in crowds to cheer a guy who, a majority believes, is an adulterer and a liar.
In fact, if you’ve been reading the op-ed pages since the story broke, you’d figure the only Americans left who possess moral standards and a capacity for outrage all work in the media.
Reading the news pages, however, leaves a different impression. Following the story in its frenzied first week was like watching a Keystone Kops short, with slapstick gags such as President Gore, reports of phantom phone sex and an evanescent eyewitness. Even now, despite half-hour updates on cable news channels, parades of pundits and spinners and daily doses of Larry King, the facts in our possession can be counted on one hand.
No wonder the American public has stampeded off like a rogue elephant, unmoved by the media’s rush to judgment. After all, the story has already moved off the front page, and it still lacks the “gate” suffix–without which no political scandal is complete. The candidates, none of which have captured the public’s fancy, include Sexygate, Zippergate, Tailgate and the droll, if technically inaccurate, Fornigate.
Here’s my suggestion: Finalgate.
Finalgate may not be witty, but it is to the point. It’s not that the alleged infidelity is the last of the White House scandals. To the contrary, scandals are sure to come and go with increasing velocity. But a quarter century after Watergate, the partnership then forged between the public and the bearer of scandalous tidings, the media, has collapsed. Back then, we identified with the press. In Finalgate, we make common cause with the object of the press’ scrutiny.
The result reminds me of the Japanese, who, after centuries of living in close quarters with only flimsy screens to protect their privacy, are said to have developed a knack for inner seclusion, an ability to be alone in the proximity of others.
Contemporary Americans, with no escape from the exposed secrets of their public figures, now invoke a similar mental defense mechanism. In its insistence that Clinton’s sex life is none of its business, the public obligingly enforces the president’s forfeited right to privacy.
Which isn’t to say we haven’t taken a peek or two–make that 200–at the sordid mess. For all our professed distaste for the seamy details, we’ve been spinning the TV dial, chasing rumors of chimerical dresses stained with presidential semen. Finalgate has buoyed the sagging numbers of the network newscasts and doubled the microscopic ratings of cable news channels. (Funny how the media’s numbers go up, even as its influence goes down.) Our say-one-thing-but-do-another behavior is taken as evidence that the American public is not only amoral and self-satisfied, but hypocritical to boot.
But perhaps we should take the public at its word. The press is right when it insists it doesn’t make us voyeurs; we supply that impulse on our own. But in the fierce struggle for our attention, the media gives us endless opportunities to act on our voyeurism. One doesn’t have to be a hypocrite to feel a little queasy at having one’s buttons repeatedly pushed or to desire relief from the constant reminder of our bottomless appetite for scandal.
So who can the public turn to in search of our better selves? Bill Clinton, of course, whose bull-market presidency has already earned lots of good will. The audience might have tuned into Clinton’s State of the Union address in greater than usual numbers just to see whether he could manage to fill more than an hour of airtime without reference to Her. But after many solemn hours of debates on the legal status of oral sex, it felt good to hear the soothing sibilants of “surplus” and “Social Security.” That Americans could be rallied by a collection of cue card-sized clichƒs punctuated by applause-sign ovations is a measure of how desperate we are.
It’s a perverse way for the Watergate era to end. In the original version, the press operated as a civic institution, the people’s avenger against those who would subvert democracy by criminal means. In this last sequel, the media is a cacophonous marketplace in which rumors ricochet at will, and rumors of sex ricochet fastest of all. In Watergate, the press’ investigative fervor brought a president down. In Finalgate, the media’s legacy is presidential approval ratings of 70 percent.