FOR THE SECOND time this fall, we desperately need Perry Mason. We need him to come into that television courtroom and carefully construct his questioning so that the guilty party finally can stand it no longer and confesses to the lies and deceptions.
We needed him when the poise and forcefulness of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas left us in a quandary with a Supreme Court seat hanging in the balance. And we need him
now that Patricia Bowman has come out from behind the blue electronic blob to look us in the eye and say once again that Willie Kennedy Smith raped her.
During Smith's trial, the defendant proved to be such a credible witness that, at the least, a reasonable doubt existed as to his guilt. And the surprisingly inept cross examination of the otherwise competent prosecutor Moira Lasch only added to his credibility.
But to see Bowman's vulnerable face and hear her determined voice last night on ABC's "PrimeTime Live" -- to hear that, like Hill, she had passed lie detector tests, and to know what the jury did not, that other women had accused Smith of assaults involving sex -- was to once again wonder which one of these was the liar, and which was the victimized party.
That Bowman chose ''PrimeTime Live" to shed her self-imposed anonymity was a huge coup for the ABC News program, apparently attributable to Bowman's high regard for the show's host, Diane Sawyer. And Sawyer did an excellent job -- a better one than Lasch -- asking most of the questions that needed to be asked without ever seeming to be badgering the witness.
Certainly she could have been a bit tougher. There should have been more about calling Smith "Michael" and asking for his ID. And she could have pressed a bit harder on why the mother of a 2-year-old was taking a ride home with a man who's just picked her up in a bar at 3 a.m.
But, overall, Sawyer brought up most of the charges leveled against Bowman's story and got her to respond.
In the trial, Smith's testimony seemed so detailed and complete, compared to Bowman's, which was an emotionally powerful description of the events but was nonetheless filled with gaps and incredulities.
Bowman didn't fill in those gaps last night. Indeed, her most telling statement might have been when she pointed out that if she had made up the story, she certainly would have had every detail down pat. Especially when you remember how detailed Smith's testimony was.
More importantly, Bowman did not come off as a publicity seeker reluctant to give up the media spotlight, which is how Smith's lawyer, Roy Black, and a juror in the case came across in a "Donahue" show broadcast earlier yesterday.
Bowman's explanation of why she did this interview made sense. The nation had last seen her as a tearful victim who was not believed by a jury of her peers. That left a stigma she wanted to get rid of by shedding her disguise, speaking her name in public and saying that she had nothing to be ashamed of.
Sawyer closed the interview -- which took up more than half of "PrimeTime Live's" hour -- by noting that Smith's lawyers had said that they considered the public airing of Bowman's story after their client's acquittal to be libelous.
They've got a point. How long does Smith have to deny this charge? He convinced a jury that it didn't happen, why should he have to convince anyone else?
Actually, he probably has little to worry about.
Think of how quickly the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill controversy faded from public view once the Senate voted to confirm him. There were loose ends dangling all over that matter that seemed to be waiting for an enterprising investigative journalist to weave into a story, but no one seems to be bothering. That was yesterday's scandal. Our TV-shortened attention spans moved quickly to the Smith rape trial and will just as quickly find something else.
The essential importance of these cases to many of us is not that they produce the truth, but that they entertain us. That is what we expect from television and that is what the coverage of Hill-Thomas and Bowman-Smith delivered.
The rendering of the verdict, by the Senate and by the jury, provided the climactic moment. Last night's interview was a denouement, an intriguing epilogue that helps close out the drama.
And when it is over, few of us ponder the imponderables of truth and deception. Instead, we hit the remote control, looking for another program, another drama, fiction or non-fiction, that will entertain us.
Maybe we'll come across an old "Perry Mason."