The Wages of Spin

How you look at things.
March 4 1999 3:30 AM

The Wages of Spin

Thanks to the shouting match over Lewinsky, a rape charge goes unanswered.

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Clinton's apologists are content to subsume the allegation of violence into a pattern of sex and thereby dismiss it as immaterial. Stephanopoulos rephrased the rape charge as a question about the relevance of candidates' private lives. Sen. James Jeffords, R-Vt., dismissed the story as "a private matter," though he later apologized. "I'd like to see us get on to the issues," replied Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., when asked on This Week about Broaddrick's allegation. Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., used the same dodge on Fox News Sunday: "Can't we focus on issues that are important to people?"

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Already, the media are dissolving Broaddrick's story into a pattern of philandering. The Chicago Tribune called it another allegation of "boorish and immoral sexual behavior." CNN Late Edition panelist Steve Roberts cited its "uneasy familiarity." And This Week co-host Cokie Roberts worried that in pursuing it, the press would again be accused "of asking too many questions ... about the candidate's life." Framed this way, the story is dying.

3. It can't be proved.

Not content to disgrace Clinton morally, his adversaries tried to inflate his cover-up of the Lewinsky affair into crimes and impeachable offenses. Not only did this weak poison fail to kill him, it strengthened his immune system. It raised the threshold for inquiring into Clinton's personal behavior and for obliging him to answer questions. If an offense can't be prosecuted and proved in court, it no longer matters.

This mindset has crippled Broaddrick's story in four ways. First, it has induced a sense of helplessness about charges that can't be legally proved. "There is no way we'll ever know what all the facts are," Daschle argued on This Week. "What we have to do now is move on." Crossfire co-host Bill Press agreed: "There's no way to prove she's telling the truth. ... We'll never know." New York Times Managing Editor Bill Keller added: "The merits of the allegations are probably unknowable. Legally, it doesn't seem to go anywhere." This notion that the charge "doesn't go anywhere" legalizes and objectifies the investigative process, absolving the speaker of responsibility to pursue the question.

Likewise, the word "unknowable" disguises the fact that the merits of the charges are not only knowable; they are known by two people. Broaddrick has now spoken. Shouldn't Clinton? When asked this question, Daschle replied: "I don't think you're going to hear anything from him, nor do I think it's going to lend any new information. Let's move on." Thus the passive prediction that Clinton will successfully lie, stonewall, or evade the question glosses over whether the media have a duty to ask it and Clinton has a duty to answer it.

Second, the legal framework shifts the burden from Clinton to his accusers. When asked on Late Edition whether Clinton was obliged to respond to Broaddrick's allegation, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said that was "up to the president" and called the charge "effectively unprovable." On Meet the Press, Susan Estrich fumed that those who dared to pursue the question would "tear people's lives apart based on a plausible allegation." Estrich demanded "a higher standard" for such an inquiry. On Fox News Sunday, Steven Brill defended Clinton's silence as a legal tactic to avoid a libel suit.

Third, this framework lends a high-minded legal cast to a low-minded excuse for ignoring the story. Instead of admitting to scandal fatigue and fear of exasperating the public, reporters and politicians observe that the "statute of limitations" on the rape charge has expired. A legitimate reason not to prosecute Clinton thus becomes a bogus reason not to question him. "It's not that we're tired, and it's not that we're lacking in moral outrage," Estrich asserted. But "unless you're ready to reopen the impeachment process ... the country wants to move on." The bipartisan movement to kill the independent counsel law provides additional legal cover for this exit. "The time has come for us to close the books," Daschle argued.

Fourth, the notion that the courts are responsible for all inquiry lets politicians and journalists pass the buck. Upon leaving office, Clinton "will be subject to criminal prosecution just as any other citizen would be," observed Wellstone. On This Week, Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio, refused to say whether anything should be done about Broaddrick's story: "I'm really not involved in that at all. ... The proper authorities ought to handle it." Conversely, Steve Roberts predicted that the story would die "because Republicans don't want to touch" it, and fellow Late Edition panelist Susan Page added, "There's no legal process continuing with it. There's no impeachment process. I don't see what keeps this story alive."

Maybe Bill Clinton was never in that room with Juanita Broaddrick. Maybe they had consensual sex. Maybe what seemed coercive to her seemed merely rough to him. Maybe he lost control and has regretted it ever since. But the bottom line is that he's giving no answers, and a nation jaded by spin is giving him a pass. It's less and less clear that actions have consequences. And it's more and more clear that ideas do.

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