We All Get 15 Seconds of Infamy

ELLEN GOORMAN

June 09, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston.--When I was a kid, I had a friend whose family business advertised on its trucks. The front of the trucks read ''Here Comes Grossman's.'' The back of the trucks read ''There Goes Grossman's.''

If you passed one going the other way on a highway, you went from ''Here Comes'' to ''There Goes'' so fast that you never had time to get a very good look at the person in the cab of the truck.

I have thought of that image -- Here Comes, There Goes -- a dozen times when the candidate for some post or other zoomed across the national screen as fast as a speeding truck. Here comes, there goes Douglas Ginsburg. Zoe Baird. Lani Guinier.

Each got the attention span of a tag line. Pothead. Nannygate. Quota Queen. An entire life in all its complexity was reduced to a road-runner cartoon. Fifteen seconds of infamy.

In January when Zoe Baird headed home, wounded, to her life, I suspect she must have lain in bed at night explaining who she was, and what she thought, to imaginary audiences. Trying to shake free of the caricature that is a kind of character assassination.

So too with Lani Guinier, the nominee for the civil-rights post and victim of another hit-and-run. On the morning after the president withdrew her name, Bryant Gumbel asked Ms. Guinier how she felt and she said,''First of all, tired.'' It was written on her face. She too wanted the chance to let people know who she really was, she wanted to be defined by what she said, not by what was said of what she said.

In the frenzied week before the withdrawal, I was called by all sorts of friends and classmates who didn't recognize the woman being portrayed. ''Quota queen'' stuck in their craw as it stuck to their friend's reputation.

The woman they knew as a healer, a woman who searched for common ground, who kept people talking to each other across racial divides, had been turned into a symbol of division. Her writings, arcane to some, were ammunition for others.

In Ms. Guinier's voice -- ''I want to be part of the healing . . . the last thing we need is more division'' -- you could not only hear disappointment at a job lost but at seeing your core beliefs reflected back in a distorted mirror. A lifetime of thinking about issues condensed into a sound bite.

I was reminded of Lenny Bruce, on trial for obscenity, as he sat in a courtroom listening to a policeman's deadpan reading of his lines and begging the judge, ''He's doing my act. Let me do my own act.''

But we don't make time for that anymore. We barely take the time to write down the number on the license plate.

In Washington my colleagues who operate with one computer program -- a spread-sheet that calculates and recalculates every event for its political ramifications -- said time was running out on Mr. Clinton. The president, the old friend of Ms. Guinier, caught between a rock and a hard place, looking as unhappy as anyone who has ever had to calculate the personal costs of power, made the decision against this clock. No time to waste.

By Sunday, two days later, always-anonymous sources had turned to talk about a Supreme Court nominee, saying, ''We need to put the Guinier fiasco behind us.'' Move right along. Next, please.

By Monday, three days later, sitting down at this keyboard, the first question I asked myself was,''is it too late to write about Guinier?'' By tomorrow or the next day or the next, will we have moved right along, will anyone still care?

We have become a country running on speed, dancing as fast as we can. A country of E-mail reactions. Federal Express public policy-making. Immediate Release. 1-800-Public opinion. That oxymoron called instant analysis.

We fast-forward through the dull parts, certainly through obscure footnoted legal journals, in search of the highlights. We channel surf for the defining or the distorting moment.

In the process, lives get compressed, sometimes crushed. Zoe Baird becomes ''a Zoe Baird'' as in, ''We don't need another Zoe Baird.'' Lani Guinier becomes a Quota Queen or a Martyr.

The speed with which things happen is not all deliberate speed. It's no-time-for-deliberation speed. We end up at the side of the highway, watching, sometimes in dismay, as the traffic goes by and accidents pile up.

Here Comes Lani. There Goes Lani.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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