The Clinton Sex Scandal

The Clinton Sex Scandal

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 31 1998 3:30 AM

The Clinton Sex Scandal

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       The scandal is helping him! According to the last night's CBS poll, Clinton's approval rating is up to 73 percent, the highest of his presidency and an astounding level under any circumstances. This development strikes confusion and terror into the heart of the journalistic pack.
       Confusion because most reporters do not personally feel that extramarital sexual relations, even extensive ones, morally disqualify someone from serving as president of the United States. They have long assumed, however, that the rest of the country does feel that way. This put them in a position that many found uncomfortable, that of broad-minded liberals applying a standard of narrow-minded moral absolutism.
       Now the tables have turned. It appears that flyover country is not peopled with provincials and puritans. The public may be extremely curious about what happened between Bill and Monica, but if it's just adultery, and perhaps the lying that is an indissoluble element of adultery, people don't ultimately care. Or so they say.
       Terror because what the public does judge harshly is self-righteousness and double standards on the part of the news media. It does not want a biblical code enforced in its name. It especially does not want a biblical code enforced unfairly, with the usual journalistic rules of fair play suspended like civil rights during wartime. It does not like sexual McCarthyism, and it rejects the bad faith involved in journalists holding politicians to a standard that journalists do not adhere to themselves or enforce upon their own friends. There is inconsistency in this attitude too, of course. Readers and viewers greedily gobble up all available information while criticizing those who fill the trough for them.
       Thus the convoluted current spectacle: A somewhat hypocritical but essentially forgiving nation turns with judgmental wrath on a personally broad-minded but professionally moralistic press. The Clintons have managed this bizarre situation rather shrewdly by not trying to blame the media for their troubles, as Nixon always did. They're letting reporters twist slowly in the wind. Reporters almost can't believe this is happening. Clinton is getting away with it once again, and the country is blaming us!
       The press can't be impeached, and it will never resign. It's going to stay and fight.

Jacob Weisberg is Slate's chief political correspondent.