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America's new celebrity culture

Massive news coverage of the Clintons adds a Hollywood sheen to thenation's politics.

A recent front page of The New York Times presents a telling tableau. Below the fold, a photograph shows President Clinton with the president of an Indian tribe, a scene from Clinton's tour of poor areas.

Above the fold, in the more prominent position, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is seen strolling with the senator she may try to succeed, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York.

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As much as any "first couple" this century, the Clintons are dominating American politics - and, at this point, it is often she more than he that leads in media coverage. Of course, her possible run for the Senate - unprecedented for a first lady, if she declares - has added a novel twist to what would otherwise be the waning period of a two-term presidency.

But there's more at play than just the exploration of Mrs. Clinton's political ambitions. The saga of Bill and Hillary - their marital problems, the impeachment, the speculation over their futures post-White House - has played into, and exacerbated, America's celebrity culture.

"It's not that these are two politicians the country is fascinated with out of politics," says Benjamin Barber, an observer of culture and politics at Rutgers University. "It's more like they're a celebrity couple the country is fixated with, thanks to obsessive media coverage of what they're doing."

And coverage of "what they're doing," Professor Barber notes, often centers on the soap-opera-like aspects of their lives: Will they get divorced? Will they remain married but live separately after they leave the White House? In particular, these questions provide the subtext for coverage of Hillary's nascent Senate campaign.

It's even possible that, without the "wronged wife" dynamic, Hillary would not be a credible Senate candidate in New York, says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political observer at the Claremont Graduate School in California.

IF SHE had decided to run in her native state of Illinois or her adopted home state of Arkansas, that would be one thing. But to contemplate running in a state that she has no particular connection to raises a new level of questions about her qualifications - and, beyond that, why New Yorkers are taking her potential candidacy seriously.

It's not that anyone doubts that Mrs. Clinton is intelligent, poised, and dedicated to family and children's issues - or that, as an ex-first lady, she would carry unique status as a US senator. Rather, says Ms. Jeffe, it's also "that she is the wronged wife of a philandering husband who happens to be the president of the United States. The melodrama is much too delicious to ignore .Everyone's watching to see how she handles the scandal question."

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In short, the Clintons, the media, and the public are entangled in a three-way symbiosis, which leaves the masses entertained but does little for the serious discussion of policy. It is part of the broader "celebrification" - and ultimately, observers say, trivialization - of politics that has led people like real estate magnate Donald Trump and media mogul Ted Turner to ponder running for president. "Political alliances are weakening, and that allows big names to come in and grab votes," says Jim Pinkerton, a former Reagan administration official.

In the end, the story of the Clintons and their impact on the presidency can't really be understood until long after they've left the White House. Each first couple reacts to who's gone before them, and in turn influences their successors, but ultimately blazes their own path.

If President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, are the closest analogy to the Clintons, as a first couple who both played forceful public roles, the comparison still falls short, says Barber. "There was no TV. There was some tabloid coverage, but we're talking about a president who was in a wheelchair and no one in the nation reported that."

Another possible comparison could be President and Jackie Kennedy, the first celebrity "first couple" in the modern political era. But even there, the gap between their image (glamorous) and the behind-the-scenes reality (soap opera) appears quaint compared with the current tell-all, see-all White House.

In the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, many observers have surmised that Clinton's biggest impact on the presidency will be in the office's formal rights and powers, and in particular the newly defined limits on executive privilege. As cultural symbols, and as the first baby boomers to occupy the White House, the Clintons have sent mixed messages to the nation, observers say. As a two-career couple, they have shown the benefits of mutual professional support. But they also "taught the country a lesson about the state of marriage in the country," says Mr. Pinkerton.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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