The chat heard round the world

ABC's interview with Monica Lewinsky was the most-watched TV newsprogram by a single network ever. The Monitor asked a leading culturalhistorian to comment.

Just when you thought the national soap opera called Lewinskygate had finally ended - the Juanita Broaddrick sequel having failed to attract an audience - Monica Lewinsky returned for her big, two-hour, sweeps-week appearance with Barbara Walters, which was touted by ABC as if it were the sexual Super Bowl. In a way, the buildup for once was appropriate since the Lewinsky show may actually have been a signal moment in American journalistic history, perhaps even in American cultural history.

Its significance does not lie in its having stripped away some of the last pretensions of broadcast journalism as a serious news provender. Those perished long ago, which is why ABC's announcer could promise at the top of the interview that "you'll understand the president as you never have before and the woman who desperately loved him," as if he were teasing "Melrose Place," and why Ms. Walters later promised, "For the first time you will hear a startling revelation." In fact, the tagline for ABC News is now "the stories that touch your life," which, roughly translated, means the stories that are most likely to provide entertainment value rather than information value. Nor does the significance of the Lewinsky show lie in the way it certified the power of the media to confer celebrity, though one of its most striking aspects was Lewinsky's cool assumption of that role. Not only did she undergo a makeover for the session, she behaved as if she were a young starlet stepping out from a screen to show her fans what she's really like.

She was poised, blithe, and confessional. When she told stories on herself, like the one where she put her hands on her hips at age 2 and declared that nobody was her boss, she was clearly star-tripping - giving us a peek into her psychology just as movie stars do, and assuming that we cared to know her this way.

Indeed, Lewinsky understood exactly what was expected of her by Walters and by us. We wanted the dish, the tawdry details, the personal flourishes that elevate a story from news into gossip. ("When we come back, Lewinsky takes us into this intimate territory," Barbara teased at one break after talking about the president's sexual relations.)

And we also wanted the patented Walters breakdown where the subject sobs uncontrollably. Poor Lewinsky came close to complying twice until, a full hour-and-42 minutes into the show, she finally delivered, welling up over a recollection of how her parents contemplated suicide during her prosecution trial.

Still, in a society that has made John Wayne Bobbitt, Joey Buttafuoco, and Tonya Harding celebrities, the celebration of Lewinsky is hardly news. What really made this a signal event is that for the very first time a sitting president was treated by a national news organization exactly as if he were just another dysfunctional movie star. That day had been coming, but it took Barbara Walters and Lewinsky to demonstrate once and for all how thoroughly our political discourse has changed.

What Walters and Lewinsky gave us were intimate tales of the president: his feelings about his marriage, his capacity for tears. "Is Bill Clinton a sensuous, sensual man?" Walters asked, crossing the boundary that had long existed between entertainers who were paid to be sensuous and a politician who was paid to govern. And later: "So Lewinsky was hurt ... But did she still love Bill Clinton?"

NO ONE can possibly claim that this line of questioning, which was Walters's only line of questioning, contributes to the public weal. Knowing that Clinton enjoys phone sex or that he and Mrs. Clinton have a brittle relationship adds nothing to our understanding of how and why he makes policy, and that no doubt is one reason traditional journalists never invaded this private territory. Their job was reporting on governance. What this intimate knowledge does do, however, is provide salacious entertainment by turning the president into just another performer in a universe of performers.

One can't really blame Walters or ABC for crossing that boundary now. One can only blame them for their sanctimonious insistence that because they didn't pay Lewinsky for the interview, they were simply purveying the news, when it turns out they reaped an estimated $30 million in advertising from the program. Of course, if it hadn't been Walters, it might have been Tom Brokaw at NBC or Dan Rather at CBS or Larry King at CNN, though it is a measure of how broadcast news has changed that one cannot possibly imagine Walter Cronkite asking any of the questions Walters asked of Lewinsky.

One can't blame the audience for watching, either. Many of us are voyeurs, myself included, and we can enjoy Lewinsky's juicy tidbits as entertainment, even if we didn't ask ABC for them and even if they don't really seem to affect how we regard the Clinton presidency any more than revelations of Elvis's drug binges affect his record sales. Walters and Lewinsky showed us that politicians are no longer exempt from the full celebrity treatment.

They showed us that the dignity of office and the reticence of journalists that once protected our public servants from this prying no longer function. Voyeurism is the new national sport. And as Barbara Walters can attest, it sure beats politics.

*Neal Gabler's latest book is "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

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