Laugh or two needed in Whitewater rancor



WASHINGTON -- Several years ago, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor received some advice from one of the reigning experts on culture and manners of the time -- John Riggins, the unpredictable All-Pro running back of the Washington Redskins. In these days of increasingly partisan bitterness surrounding the Whitewater case, it would stand one and all hereabout in good stead.

From a vantage point under the table at a political dinner, where apparently he had been snoozing between courses, the mighty "Riggo's" counsel was: "Lighten up, Sandy baby." It is not known what behavior by the customarily proper justice elicited the remark, but the speculation was that Riggins was somewhat lightened himself by the spirits of the evening.

Today, there is some reason to believe that the sentiment embodied in that advice is beginning to creep into the dialogue over Whitewater, at least on the Democratic side, where the partisans could do with a good laugh or two, considering the way the case has intruded on President Clinton's efforts to sell his ambitious health care reform plan.

The Clintons, Bill and Hillary, decided at the annual Gridiron dinner here the other night to try a little levity, that being the regular fare served up by the longtime Washington newspaper reporters' club at the expense of Democrats, Republicans and anybody in between. They showed a short video with themselves playing the roles of "Harry and Louise," the at-home actor-couple that has been casting doubts about that health care plan on behalf of a consortium of worried insurance companies.

Seated on a sofa and dressed in casual clothes, Hillary thumbed through a thick book that purported to be the Clinton plan and informed a shocked Bill of some of the ghastly elements of it. One page, "Louise" read, said that under the plan "you could get sick." Another, she went on, "says that eventually we are all going to die." To which "Harry" replied, eyebrows raised: "You mean, after Bill and Hillary put all those new bureaucrats and taxes on us? We're still all going to die?" Gravely, "Louise" replied: "Even Leon Panetta." At the end came the credit line: "Paid for by the Coalition to Scare Your Pants Off."

The video was prepared for screening at the private dinner, but the White House later released it to news organizations, many of whom ran it the next night -- a considerable freebie for the Clintons in the continuing advertising war with the insurance companies.

A couple of days earlier, the Clintons' Hollywood friend and television producer, Harry Thomason, turned out a 60-second commercial on his own not only spoofing the real "Harry and Louise" ads but burying poor old Louise, who had seemed in the insurance company coalition's ads to be in the best of health.

It showed a graveyard with a narrator saying: "Harry lost his job and also his insurance. Louise owned a small and struggling company that could not afford group insurance, so she had always depended on Harry's policy. Unfortunately, she had a pre-existing condition that prevented her from obtaining new coverage. It's true, Louise should have gone into the hospital earlier, but she didn't want to eat into their savings. Eventually, she and Harry gave up their country club membership, sold their expensive foreign car, but by then it was too late."

An insurance company coalition spokesman observed that "killing off Louise doesn't take away from the serious questions we raised in our ads." Riggins probably would have given him the same advice he gave Justice O'Connor.

The lightening up by the Clintons in their spoof came on the heels of some angry verbal slashes by them at the foes of the health care reforms and at Republicans stirring the waters of Whitewater. The president, casting the Republicans as blind obstructionists, seemed to forget how they had bailed him out on NAFTA last year, and how he will probably need them again on health care and his other legislative agenda.

So it may be that humor was making only a one-night stand at the Gridiron. If so, it may be time to give the ball to Riggins again.

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