The Tabloid Traumas of the Talk-Show President : When You Live by the Culture . . .

<i> Steven D. Stark, who has written for the Atlantic, is a commentator on National Public Radio</i>

Whether or not you believe Paula Corbin Jones’ charges against Bill Clinton, the filing of a lawsuit against a U.S. President for personal behavior--on raunchy sexual-harassment charges no less--constitutes a unique turn in American culture and history.

A century ago, Grover Cleveland may have been identified as the father of Maria Halpin’s illegitimate son, but no one thought of hauling him into court to answer for his behavior. Even if Jones’ charges are found to be untrue, few relish the spectacle of a President possibly having to plead immunity or be deposed about his private life.

To many, the Jones lawsuit is just another sign the country is going to hell in a handbasket. Maybe so. Still, a number of cultural and political developments that brought us to this juncture are worth examining--if only to understand how we got here.


First, the suit is the culmination of a diminution of the stature of the presidency, due both to the end of the Cold War and changes in mass communication. From 1945-1990, the Cold War led to an increase in executive power. What’s more, because Presidents can act in foreign policy largely unimpeded by congressional critics, they tended to be preoccupied by it. Before Clinton, virtually all Presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt devoted much time to foreign policy. With the end of the Cold War, however, the importance of a strong foreign-policy leader has diminished.

This postwar rise in presidential power coincided with the growth of broadcasting--allowing Presidents to go over the heads of Congress. This, too, created a more powerful and “personal” presidency (in Theodore J. Lowi’s phrase), as Presidents became our prime political movers, supplanting the party. Now, however, with the rise of cable “narrowcasting,” the President’s ability to sway the nation has been curtailed. With more competition over the airwaves, presidential speeches now often draw roughly two-thirds the audience they drew only 15 years ago. That, too, weakens the presidency.

Clinton’s response has been to take his presidency on the road with televised town meetings--becom-ing, in effect, his own cable network and an even more “personal” President. Yet, by closing the distance between himself and the people with a “talk-show presidency,” Clinton has allowed the office to become further demystified. It’s not an exaggeration to contend that a President who reveals to an MTV audience that he wears briefs rather than boxers is likelier to be sued by someone alleging he may have improperly taken off those briefs.

Second, this action represents the culmination of a decades-long trend in which the line between entertainment and politics has blurred. Clinton hardly started the trend: Woodrow Wilson entertained D. W. Griffith at the White House; John F. Kennedy’s presidency was a press agent’s dream, and Ronald Reagan treated the presidency as the role of a lifetime.

It’s hardly news that Washington has become a kind of Hollywood on the Potomac--where the image of what happens is far more important that what actually transpires. It’s now a world where leaders are measured almost solely by popularity polls; where candidates are judged by how well-groomed and glib they appear in TV debates, and where David Letterman and Jay Leno are the Walter Lippmanns of the day.

In this atmosphere, it’s no surprise that the press and public now treat their leaders in much the same fashion they deal with their entertainment icons. Hollywood stars are in the business of image, so when the image shatters, it’s big news to the public--and rightfully so.

Sadly, the same rules now apply to Clinton. The real precedents for this scandal aren’t Cleveland’s political travails but the show-biz troubles of Fatty Arbuckle and Michael Jackson (down to tabloid details of anatomy).

To be sure, there are other currents at work. We recently concluded a period of mourning when there were constant reminders of how much Richard M. Nixon’s Watergate lessened respect for the presidency. Thanks, in part, to the legacy of the baby boomers--who grew up distrusting all paternal symbols--all authority figures tend not to command as much respect as they once did.

Because of the baby-boom generation, which defined the personal as political, private behavior comes under increasing scrutiny. As respect for official authority has declined, there’s more of a tendency for Americans to resort to legal remedies. In an age of narcissism, lawsuits are the counterpart to consciousness-raising or health clubs.

The press has obviously played a role. With the growth of tabloid journalism, the news has become a kind of national gallery of vileness. This is due, in part, to what might be called--for lack of a better term--the pornographication of American culture. Throughout the culture, standards for public discourse about sex have widened considerably--even in legal complaints.

Moreover, over the years, the press has developed a kind of pervasive distrust of public servants. Whether or not one attributes this to justified skepticism after Watergate, the result has been the nurturing of a kind of grouchy cynicism about leaders that has further lowered respect for the presidency.

To be sure, all these sentiments are nothing new in American life--even if they have now been taken to new heights. More than 150 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about how Americans are always drawn to gossip--the better to demonstrate why the famous are no better than anyone else.

The irony, of course, is that Clinton came to office embodying a number of the cultural forces that now threaten to overwhelm him. He is a member of the baby-boom generation that brought many of these anti-authority sentiments into the cultural mainstream. He had the support and sympathy of many groups that favor an expansion of just the sorts of legal rights and remedies Jones is now employing. Clinton may resent being treated as if he were just another show-biz figure, but he once courted the comparison, in everything from the way he played the sax to his adopted nickname, “Elvis.”

Clinton perfected the talk-show approach on his ascent into office--remember the second debate when he took questions from voters--but he ended up lowering his stature in the process. What’s more, the “I feel your pain” trademark of his presidency first gained cultural prominence as a talk-show staple--the whole point of talk shows like Oprah Winfrey’s is that they encourage “victims” to “feel their pain” as a way of empowering themselves to strike back against those who seem more powerful.

Clinton took the language of the talk-show movement and brought it to politics. He apparently never realized that once elected, he would become the nation’s most powerful figure and thus Public Enemy No. 1 to all these anti-Establishment elements. The rest, as they say, is history. The forces tapped and unleashed by Clintonism now threaten to engulf their leader.*