Nefarious Plots

Policy made plain.
Nov. 28 1997 3:30 AM

Nefarious Plots

Mike Kinsley on selling cemetery plots.

Nefarious Plots

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As Slate's "Pundit Central" points out, the consensus view of the commentariat is that President Clinton is to be blamed for selling burial rights at Arlington Cemetery to campaign contributors--even though it turns out he never did it--because it's just the sort of thing he might have done. Or not quite: There's a perception, well founded or otherwise, that this is the sort of thing he might do.

Here is an important new development in the Washington press corps' perceptions game. Often in the past, when chasing some alleged miscreant, the press has brushed aside the question of what exactly is wrong with the explanation that the situation creates the perception of impropriety. We thereby avoid the tiresome issue of whether anything improper actually has occurred. (The trick works both ways: Actual miscreants confess to having created an appearance of impropriety, thus sidestepping the little matter of impropriety itself.) Since the press itself largely creates the perception with its coverage, justifying the coverage on the basis of the perception is a convenient form of circular reasoning.

Never before, though (to our knowledge), has a public figure been found guilty of committing a perception when the perception is demonstrably untrue. Until now there had to be at least a possibility that the perception of impropriety might some day molt into hard evidence of actual impropriety. In this case, that possibility doesn't exist. Undoubtedly there are folks who will continue to insist, against all evidence, that Clinton sold entry to Arlington. But those who take the isn't-this-just-typical line are doing so precisely because, although they think it's typical, they accept that it isn't true. Apparently that doesn't matter anymore--as long as it's typical, or arguably typical. So boo to Clinton, no need to apologize, and no need to worry about being the conduit for any faintly plausible bit of poison his critics may be dispensing.

Like all journalists, we at Slate have longed for the day when "might be true" is accepted as the standard for our trade. Never in our most idealistic moments did we dare hope for a standard of "might be true--even though it isn't." Like a starving man standing before the bounty of ... oh, say, the Microsoft cafeteria (check out the vegetable stir-fry), we hardly know where to begin (don't miss those Rice Krispies squares!).

Maybe Clinton sold the national monuments! (Q: Who is buried in Grant's Tomb? A: If you have to ask, you can't afford it.) Could be true. After all, it would be typical of someone who sold Arlington Cemetery plots, which, though he may not have done it, is nevertheless typical of the kind of guy who'd kill Vincent Foster, which he didn't do either--but that doesn't matter because he's the kind of guy who does the kind of thing that gets you accused of doing that kind of thing.

Maybe Newt Gingrich actually poisoned his first wife. After all, he divorced her on her deathbed--or something like that. We don't remember the details, exactly, but they certainly created the perception that he did something like that, and anyone who could be perceived to do something like that has created an atmosphere that makes possible the perception that he could do something worse. So he has no one to blame but himself.

Hey, this is going to be fun.

Turkey of All Time

Last week Time magazine reported some preliminary results from a poll it has been conducting on its Internet site about whom it should pick for its "Person of the Century." An impressive 5 million votes have been cast since the poll went up in June. But bizarrely, 1.7 million of those votes were for Kemal Atatürk. Atatürk was the founder of modern Turkey, which is no mean accomplishment (what have you done with your life?), but the Time folks understandably suspect ballot-stuffing.

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