First as Tragedy, Then as Farce

March 11, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston -- It happened just in the nick of time. Monday morning, the United States Supreme Court came down unanimously on the side of parody. The justices ruled that 2 Live Crew's sendup of a classic that turned ''Oh, Pretty Woman'' into ''Big Hairy Woman'' wasn't necessarily an infringement of the copyright laws.

This is an enormous relief to everyone who has ever imitated or ridiculed somebody else's style. But it also must be a great source of comfort to those creative forces in the capital who are busily trying to turn Whitewater into Watergate.

This Very Live Crew is beginning to sound like a parody of the original crew that covered the uncopyrighted scandal some 20 years ago. Consider what happened in the wake of the presidential press conference on Monday afternoon. Every word offered by Bill Clinton was set to an old Dick Nixon tune by someone else.

Did Bill say, ''We are not covering anything up''? Well, offered a colleague, didn't Nixon say, ''I am not a crook.''?

Did Bill offer a spirited defense of his wife? ''Her moral compass is as strong as anybody's in this country.'' Well, didn't Dick once mawkishly laud his wife's virtues?

By midweek virtually every Republican, including those who now embrace the real Nixon as an elder statesman, had darkly drawn some Watergate analogy. Virtually every Washington reporter who had been around 20 years ago -- far too many, by the way -- had done an obligatory then-and-now piece.

One old Nixon hand even ominously compared the presidents' nicknames -- Tricky Dick and Slick Willie -- as if that were evidence in the court of public opinion.

This rap on the Clintons was played against old and resonant beats: You heard ''What did he know and when did he know it,'' and the sound of shredding.

Virtually the only people in Washington to suggest that it was all a bit off-tune were in the president's orchestra. It took David Gergen to say, ''The only similarity between Watergate and Whitewater is that they both start with the same letter.'' Or contain the same word: water.

I hate to ruin a good parody, but the 10-year-old Whitewater was not a criminal act. And the current Whitewater is not a constitutional crisis.

The irony is that the Clintons got mixed up in a real-estate development deal that reeks more of the Reagan era than the Nixon era. The doo-wop chorus here sounds more like a beat of the '80s -- failed S&Ls, real-estate boom and bust -- than the '70s.

What was a dreary and incomprehensible tale about the incestuous world of Arkansas wheelers and dealers, is now a dreary and barely comprehensible story about improper briefings Treasury officials in the incestuous world of Washington. The phrase most often heard about the Clinton folk is naive bungling -- not a lyric from Nixon's repertoire.

If we have a flock of creative types doing this parody of Watergate for a Whitewater audience, it's because the original has been the benchmark for all scandals. This is the scandal that brought a president down. Since then, every time an investigation erupts from Bert Lance to Iran-contra, the easiest way to get headline status is by pinning a ''gate'' on it.

Any opponent worth a spot on an Enemies List knows the value of fusing Whitewater and Watergate into one image of a presidency brought low. As the president said, they want to ''gin up'' ''hysteria'' on the issue.

For the media, I'm afraid the lesson of Watergate was that you never get in professional trouble assuming the absolute worst. Watergate produced what the biologists call imprinting behavior. We go after every White House trouble as if it were the big one. Investigations that are modeled after the Watergate story have become parodies of it.

At the journalistic risk of not thinking the worst, every time a White House counsel leaves, it isn't a Saturday Night Massacre. Every time some papers are missing, it isn't an 18-minute gap in the tapes. Every time someone bungles, it isn't a conspiracy to obstruct justice.

The attention of a government and a press corps is being sucked down the Watergate drain, flushing away energy and confidence. So forgive me if I don't share the lust for the Nixonese. I was hoping for something new in the 1990s, like say, wrestling with big problems.

Wrestling with Big Problems. Hum a few bars, and maybe we can still play it.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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