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A Crisis With No Parallel
Clinton Scandal Fits Coarser, Faster-Paced '90s

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 26, 1998; Page A01

In the culture of Washington scandal, there is no parallel to the crisis that so swiftly enveloped President Clinton's White House -- not Whitewater, not Iran-contra, not even Watergate.

Nothing compares to what the country has witnessed since the story first broke: the around-the-clock pursuit; the almost instantaneous reporting through outlets that didn't exist a decade ago; the commingling of fact, rumor and opinion and the ubiquity of talking heads; and the intense speculation about whether Clinton's presidency can survive, long before the facts have been established.

It is a scandal that fits the times. What began with allegations involving sex and subornation of perjury -- with grave legal implications -- quickly has been overshadowed by a story of sex of the most salacious variety. Normally judicious commentators and politicians have leaped into subjects that would make a sailor blush.

Clinton has himself to blame for helping to create some of this atmosphere, and in that sense his past remains one of his worst enemies.

Allegations of marital infidelity, and of shading the truth in critical situations, have dogged Clinton from the day he launched his campaign for the presidency in 1991. By now, he gets almost no benefit of the doubt when sordid allegations erupt. What the public -- and the press -- find difficult to believe about most politicians, they seem willing to believe about Clinton.

But the environment also reflects a coarsening of the public discourse. In the competitive climate of the current crisis, the barriers of restraint have fallen and the brakes barely exist.

Whatever the impact on Clinton's presidency, the crisis is likely to inflict further damage to the institutions of government and to the relationship between politicians and the public. "The fact is, we're not going back," said Republican pollster Robert Teeter. "The worms are out of the can here."

On matters of personal behavior, Clinton came to this crisis with a devalued currency. It was only made worse by his initial response to the allegations -- which sounded more lawyerly than open -- and by a subsequent report that, in his Paula Jones deposition a week ago, he admitted having had an affair with Gennifer Flowers. Six years ago this week, he went on television right after the Super Bowl and denied that Flowers had been his paramour.

"It goes back to the fact that a lot of people don't believe him," one Democrat said yesterday. "The Gennifer Flowers [admission] was just devastating. It calls into question every other denial he gives on anything."

But the unique nature of this scandal also reflects a new media environment in which competitive pressures are more intense than ever and the lines between traditional and tabloid journalism have been badly blurred.

Three all-news cable networks are competing fiercely on the Clinton story, with more time to fill than new facts available. The other major networks also are in hot pursuit, and major newspapers have used their Internet sites to post information hours before their papers are delivered to readers. "It's constantly being updated and feeds upon itself," said Brookings scholar Stephen Hess.

Tom Patterson, a journalism professor at Syracuse University who has been critical of the news media, said the elements of this scandal -- sex, the presidency, possible perjury or interference with the legal process -- make it a story of enormous proportions.

"But in terms of looking at the behavior of the press," he said, "I think they've lost their sense of proportion here. There's been a rush to judgment."

Patterson said the rush to judgment on the basis of partial and perhaps inaccurate information makes this scandal far different from Watergate. "It says something about where the press has come over the last 25 years," he said.

Robert Dallek, a historian and biographer for President Lyndon B. Johnson, said that while there have been sex scandals involving presidents in the past, "We've never had anything like this before -- a sitting president under scrutiny for violating the moral code for seducing a 21-year-old kid."

For that reason, sex has taken precedence over what scholars and legal experts regard as serious legal allegations of tampering with the legal process by the president or his friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr., the Washington attorney who tried to help Monica Lewinsky get a job.

"There's an immediacy about the affair and it's so much richer in allegation than the possibility of demonstrating suborning perjury," Dallek said. "It's a growing story, a balloon that keeps getting more air in it, as opposed to the legalities."

There is no question that the scandal has revealed the extent to which barriers to bad taste have fallen. For all the hand-wringing about tabloid television and sordid talk shows that fill up hours each day, the Clinton story has demonstrated the degree to which those standards have infected everyone.

The line from Gary Hart in 1987 to Clinton in 1992 to Clinton today shows the acceleration of the media's pursuit of stories involving sex and private behavior, and involving legal as well as sexual matters.

"I think it's more a sign of the times than it is of Clinton," Teeter said. "It's a sign of the Internet, it's a sign of cable and it's a sign of increasing tabloid stuff. . . . We've been moving toward this, but this one did it. You can't blame anyone for it. You can't see an editor say, 'This is below our dignity, we're not going to put it in the paper.' This is the president of the United States."

Clinton's legal situation has given the story a more one-sided quality than other past scandals. Only in the past two days have administration officials and Clinton supporters attempted to make a public case in his behalf -- and their efforts have been mostly ineffectual because they don't know the facts of the case either.

There is nothing likely to slow down these trends. How they will affect the outcome of the current scandal, no one can tell. The volume of information -- accurate or alleged -- about Clinton's personal life is likely to inflict substantial political damage no matter what the final resolution of the matter is.

And that may only further degrade the political system. "One almost certain effect on the public is that their confidence in their leadership and institutions will be diminished," Patterson said. "I think the press will be hurt. I don't see how things can do much for the public good."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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