It is difficult to imagine anything more tiresome than the squabble over what George W. Bush likes to call his "youthful mistakes," but you can bet everything in the bank that before Campaign 2000 grinds to its close the squabble will be repeated in other forms, and almost certainly exceeded, over and over again. That is exactly the way the candidates and the press want it to be.
The parties to the immediate dispute are equally unappealing. On one side is the governor of Texas, whose flippancy is exceeded only by his self-righteousness; on the other are the ladies and gentlemen of the press, whose self-righteousness is exceeded only by their hypocrisy. None of the participants is interested in serious, sober discussion of whatever consequential matters the presidential contest may entail; the governor--like all the other candidates--is focused entirely on spin, and the press is focused entirely on sensation.
It is a shootout in which there are no good guys. Those who have thus far offered themselves for the presidency are, with the possible exceptions of Bill Bradley and John McCain, as dreary a lot as one could hope to assemble for a chapter meeting of Bores Anonymous. The only apparent claim upon the office of either of the front-runners, Bush and Vice President Gore, is that each believes himself genetically entitled to it; as a result each sees no reason to debate "the issues," whatever those may be, preferring instead to emit vast oratorical flatulence created by the spin flacks in his employ.
What should concern us about these two men, and the others scrambling to stay within barking distance of them, is not whether they inhaled marijuana or sniffed cocaine but whether they have any convictions or ideas that actually recommend them for the presidency. There is ample reason to believe that they do not, since neither is making the slightest effort to describe real convictions--as opposed to artificial ones trumped up after consulting opinion polls and tea leaves--but the press, God knows, is making no effort to encourage them to do so.
The transformation of the press in the past quarter-century, under the combined influence of Watergate, the "new" journalism and President Clinton, is astonishing. As one who is old enough to remember--and have actual experience in--the pre-Watergate press, I have few romantic illusions about it; it contained its full share of ambitious mediocrities, social climbers, mountebanks and sycophants. But there was, especially in the upper reaches of the Washington press corps, a capacity to distinguish between what is important and what is not, and an understanding that the story is more important than the person who writes it.
There are still some people who fit that description in the Washington and national press corps, but the predominant impression it now presents--certainly this is the case in the "youthful mistakes" uproar--is of self-promotion, triviality, mendacity and arrogance. Baited, no doubt, by behind-the-scenes operators in both parties who desire to tar the front-runners with the brush of Clintonism, the press is blissing out on the private affairs of public figures, inflating scandal where it can be rooted out and inventing it where it cannot.
The hypocrisy is breathtaking. We in the press are every bit as fallibly human as the politicians whose behavior we so roundly and righteously excoriate; my own history contains many "mistakes," by no means all of them "youthful" or picayune, and the same can be said of many others in this line of work. Drink, dope, sex and other temptations are no more alien to the newsroom than to Capitol Hill; indeed it is my guess that people succumb to them in approximately equal measures in both places. Journalists, like politicians, tend to be intense, ambitious, passionate and self-absorbed; all of these characteristics heighten one's susceptibility to temptation.
None of this is as bad as the bluenoses would have us believe. Deeply flawed people can make contributions to the welfare of humankind, as the biographies of Pablo Picasso, Frank Sinatra and Catherine the Great--to name the first three who come to mind--make plain. But matters do get bad when misbehavior is compounded by deceit, hypocrisy and self-righteousness, all of which have been on display in recent days.
Thus what is most troubling about Clinton's dalliances is that he persistently, systematically and shamelessly lied about them, to the courts, to his fellow politicians, to the American people. What is most troubling about the (unfounded, or at least unprovable) rumors of Bush's use of cocaine is that he has refused to confront or deny them head-on, but has resorted to feints and dodges. By contrast with the exhibitionism of Bush's public statements about his battles with alcohol and his marital fidelity, his refusal to speak plainly and unconditionally about drugs heightens, rather than diminishes, suspicions about his veracity and thus his character.
As to the press, how can anyone take seriously our fits of moral dudgeon when our own imperfections are so obvious? What's wrong isn't that we try to ferret out misconduct--it's part of the job--but that we are so self-righteous and hypocritical when we find it, or merely think we have found it. What should concern us about George W. Bush is not what he may or may not have done Lord knows how many years ago, but what he's done as governor of Texas and what he'd do as president. My impression is that there's ample cause for concern on both counts, but right now we've got smaller fish to fry.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.