Washington's 'Big Story' Plays to a Jaded Audience

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Some people think I've been on vacation. Actually, I've been on a secret assignment for editor David Cook to find out what voters are saying about the White House scandal.

Not really. But you can't keep an old war horse off the job. I've been listening and watching. And I've noted that, at least up to now, there are elements in the public's thought that separate this current scandal from the one in which an electorate said it had had enough of Richard Nixon and he left the scene. Public ire backed that Nixon exit or he would have toughed it out.

As I talked to people or listened in on conversations of others, I noted that there's very little scandal-related anger out there. Yes, there's some. Some people echo the judgment of the eminent historian Henry Graff, who when asked about infidelities committed by presidents said, "They besmirch the presidency."

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But I found most people weren't talking about the questions being raised regarding the president's personal conduct. Was it disinterest? Was it apathy? While I couldn't get my fill of the scandal-related developments on TV, I found this lack of conversation inexplicable.

Then I read a New York Times interview with that king of comedy writing, Larry Gelbart. He said TV comedies "have given way to stupid bedroom and bathroom jokes," resulting in an audience that has lost "the ability to be ashamed."

Is that what has happened? Has TV conditioned much of the American people to tolerate alleged infidelity in the White House? Is that why I'm hearing a yawn out there?

It makes me wonder, too, whether this present-day jaded audience might have let Nixon get away with it, tapes and all. My best judgment says no. But maybe today's television fare has so numbed people that they would have bought the Nixon argument that all the Republicans did was play a political trick on the Democrats when they tried to break into their headquarters. That it was just old-time, hard-ball politics.

Actually, I didn't stay away - not entirely - from the big story in Washington. I flew back from Florida for a day to conduct a Monitor breakfast with presidential press secretary Mike McCurry just as the scandal was breaking. It was a "hot" session, as we call those get-togethers when the reporters see an opportunity to glean headline-making information.

Mr. McCurry pleaded ignorance on whether or not the president had had a relationship with the intern. But he promised that Mr. Clinton would very soon meet with the press and tell us all about it. I suggested that the Monitor breakfast forum would be an ideal place for Clinton to provide this information. After the breakfast, before we left our Carlton Hotel ballroom, I pressed McCurry about this invitation to the president. He said it was a good idea but couldn't give me a commitment.

I flew back to Orlando to continue my vacation, but much of the time my thoughts were on the Washington scene. I kept hoping I would be summoned to return, this time for Clinton to do what McCurry promised he would do - explain the nature of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, including how many times he saw her, where, and under what circumstances.

This would be a most difficult time for any press secretary, and particularly for the honest, honorable, highly capable fellow I have always believed McCurry to be. He has an obligation to the press to provide information about the president.

But he can't fulfill that obligation as long as the president keeps his silence on what some are calling Lewinsky-gate. So I have no doubt that McCurry is doing all he can to persuade the president to meet with the media and, if possible, to clear the air.

The president proclaims his innocence. If so, he should have little trouble filling in the details.

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