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A Scary Indifference

By William Raspberry
Saturday, March 15 1997; Page A23

We were talking about the Clinton campaign fund-raising "scandal," and frankly, I was a bit disappointed that my small class at Duke University was having trouble working up much moral outrage.

The problem, I decided, was that they didn't know what was normal in the buying and selling of political access. Without some base line, how could they decide what was unacceptably awful? Better, I thought, to begin at a level they could easily comprehend and then gradually move them toward the more complex issues now dominating the news.

So I told them about the Hyde School's fund-raiser. Several local Washington "celebs" have been asked to provide items for auction: signed books, personal items, autographed basketballs – that sort of thing. I agreed to let myself be auctioned off for lunch.

Question: Wouldn't the people who bid on lunch with me believe they were buying access to The Washington Post? Obviously, the chance to spend an hour or so talking with me is not the same thing as getting their story in the paper (any more than sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom meant favorable action on the legislative interests of the rich contributors to the Clinton campaign). Still, access must be worth something. Was it wrong for me to "sell" it to the highest bidder?

My intention in telling about the luncheon was to see what questions my students would raise – and then up the ante. What about letting someone with a story to tell buy me a cup of coffee at the lunch counter? Lunch at Four Seasons? Dinner aboard his yacht – in Nassau?

But I never got the chance to peel back the layers of my little onion. The only question anybody raised about my fund-raising luncheon was whether I'd get to keep any of the money.

I wouldn't, of course. But what if I did? No, let's make it tempting. What if I were approached by people who thought it worth $25,000 of their organization's resources if I would advocate their side of some controversy? What if I halfway believed their side anyway?

And here's where my young students – bright, privileged and thoroughly decent – shocked me to my shoes. Fully three-quarters of them thought it no problem for me to take the money. And suppose I didn't agree with the side offering the 25K: Could I hold my nose, cross my fingers and write it anyway?

"It's your column," one student said. "It's not like you're selling the newspaper, just your column. I might think less of you if I found out, but, hey, that's your problem."

Those of us who've been trying to figure out how Clinton could be in the midst of a fund-raising scandal and simultaneously enjoying high popularity ratings have chalked it up to cynicism. The people, we argue, have become so used to politicians walking the shady side of the street that they are no longer shocked by scandals that fall short of physical violence.

My students – too tiny a sample to extrapolate usefully even to Duke University, let alone America – do, however, suggest that maybe cynicism isn't the whole answer.

Maybe what they're revealing is not indifference to unethical behavior but a new definition of ethics that allows for the buying and selling of virtually anything.

Maybe they have come to see the media's hot-breath pursuit of political scandal the way they view professional boxing – as a game that is sometimes boring, sometimes entertaining but irrelevant to their lives. What are the Lincoln Bedroom story, the Newt Gingrich affair or Whitewater about? One might as well ask what the fight between Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson was about.

Maybe it's moral ignorance. Maybe my generation – which does cling to notions of virtue, even as we violate them – has neglected to pass these ideas along, imagining that our children will somehow derive the principles they need to guide their lives.

I don't know what it is. I only know that it scares me that so many people have become blase about behavior that once would have been considered scandalous – and that our children, so alert to the personal affront, seem incapable of moral indignation.

It has been remarked of late that the media, driven by their own economic survival, are becoming more "tabloid" every day. Wouldn't it be something if they also become the last surviving arbiter of public virtue? Now there's a scary thought.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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