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Whitewater and Civility

PRESIDENT Clinton was obviously grateful the other week to let Garrison Keillor, of ``Prairie Home Companion'' fame, do some heavy lifting for him. Mr. Keillor spoke at the annual radio and television correspondents' dinner in Washington April 12, and he counseled them, in an oblique rebuke cast as an appeal to enlightened self-interest, to take care not to ``slip into the field of fiction and entertainment.'' If they do, they will be expected to be fascinating. ``Nobody can be fascinating for long, but people can be accurate and responsible for an entire career. And I wish all of you long and distinguished careers.''

The following day, when Mr. Clinton was addressing the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Whitewater affair came up, he commended Keillor for his remarks, which also included a reference to Whitewater as ``less about what's real than it is about perceptions.''

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One of the themes echoing through the editors' convention (whose speakers also included Lani Guinier, whose nomination to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department the White House withdrew under a barrage of public criticism, and Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, the almost-secretary of defense who blasted the media as he stepped down) was the civility of public discourse. Has the natural skepticism of the press toward political figures become such hostility and reductionism as to hinder constructive public life? Specifically, is Whitewater just a scandal manufactured by the media to prevent the president from governing?

The answer to these questions is no, but that does not mean that there aren't things the press corps could learn from its critics.

Coverage by formula is to be deplored. It sometimes seems as if the press seizes on certain kinds of lapses not because they are the most telling indexes of someone's character but because they are matters of objectively verifiable fact: A few years ago the focus was likely to be whether a prospective political appointee belonged to any clubs with discriminatory membership policies. More recently, payment of Social Security taxes for domestic help has been the litmus test. Ten or 20 years hence we may see an appointee pilloried for inadequate zeal in recycling his or her domestic trash.

But these checkpoints are the ways our ostensibly fact-based media culture finds to get certain issues onto the table for discussion. One of the questions Clinton has to answer, and will likely have to keep answering, is about character. This has less to do with his financial dealings in Arkansas, or draft history, or quondam marital difficulties, than with whether as president he can make tough decisions and stick with them, even after things get even tougher; whether he will stand by a nominee whose views get unfairly distorted in the public discussion. He will need to prove over time that his consensus-building and common-ground-seeking are rooted in strength, not weakness.

It was a fair point for Clinton to make to the editors that with an independent counsel named he should be allowed to get on with his main job. As president he has great power to set the national agenda; to his great credit he has been quite active in this way. But the public and the press have a right to bring up ``new business'' too. He will have to keep demonstrating that he can stand up to their testing.

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