Cynical era puts a curse on us: knowing too much


In Landover the other night, Barbra Streisand told a joke about a chicken. Only it wasn't actually a joke about a chicken, it was really about the president of the United States, who happened to be in the audience at the USAir Arena and happened, also, to be in need of a good laugh.

Streisand's joke went something like this: Woman goes to a butcher and asks to see a chicken. Butcher gives her the chicken, and she commences to poke it, prod it, squeeze it, knead it. Gives it back to the butcher. Says she doesn't like it. Doesn't like the way the chicken looks. Butcher says, "Lady, with all due respect, if somebody poked you around like that, you wouldn't look so good, either." It wasn't possible to see Bill Clinton's reaction -- he was sitting in the first or second row, a few yards from Streisand -- but it's not hard to imagine delight on his face. He's feeling a little overexamined these days, a chicken who's been overplucked, accused not only of straying from his vows of marital fidelity but attempting to do it, with this Paula Jones woman, in the most vulgar fashion. We've never heard the likes of this, except in retrospect. John Kennedy had the good fortune to get shot before we heard about his sexual athleticism with mob girls, and with Marilyn Monroe, and with anyone else who happened to be available. When Monroe sang "Happy Birthday" to Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in 1962, nobody back then knew precisely how happy she was making him.

Barbra Streisand, having finished her chicken joke the other night, sang her own song. She didn't dedicate it specifically to Clinton, but she might have. She sang "Happy Days Are Here Again" while a big movie screen behind her gave visual support: Nelson Mandela triumphing in South Africa, American women winning political elections, the Clintons and the Gores altering the thrust of the national agenda.

It looked very wholesome and very innocent. Streisand wore a tailored white suit and sang her song like an anthem. Three decades ago, Marilyn Monroe wore a contoured, see-through thing into which she seemed to have been poured, and she purred the words to "Happy Birthday." Streisand gave greetings not only to Bill Clinton, but to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was sitting next to him. Marilyn Monroe didn't show up if Jackie Kennedy was in the room.

And yet, to hear Streisand singing for Clinton the other night was to remember Monroe's breathless business with Kennedy and also, inevitably, to remember how Kennedy got a pass from reporters covering the White House, while Clinton does not.

So thoroughly do these sexual dalliance stories now permeate his image, in fact, that when Secret Service agents entered the arena Thursday night, a woman asked, "When Clinton walks in, does the band play 'Hail to the Chief' or 'To All the Girls I've Loved Before'?"

Everybody who heard the line, even those who want to like Bill Clinton, laughed out loud. In John Kennedy's time, such a line would have invited a punch in the nose. We had respect for presidents then. We had reverence. Of course, we didn't know very much about them, not by today's sexy standards.

Today we wear cynicism as a badge of maturity. We know too much now, or think we do: not only about Kennedy's sex life, but about Dwight Eisenhower's wartime romance and Richard Nixon's dirty little political secrets and Ronald Reagan's inattentiveness.

To embrace any politician now is to invite the worst charge of the age: naivete. We suspect that something will eventually turn up, some new woman previously unknown, or some land deal too complex to understand, and so we give our hearts to no one in political life and thus suspect all issues they touch.

In another time, there was an unwritten rule in journalism: We only exposed the private foibles of public people when they impacted on their performance in office. Now we all pretend at amateur psychoanalysis, implying that anyone guilty of personal flaws must therefore be suspect in all public endeavors. Gossip has become our common currency.

The result is: The country's bogged down with crime and with unmanageable health care, and everybody's wondering if the president dropped his trousers with a woman he'd never met before. Frankly, some of us would rather not know.

On the big screen behind Barbra Streisand Thursday night, there was a series of snapshots from her career, including one of her visiting the White House more than 30 years ago. There she was, smiling with John Kennedy. They both looked delighted.

Once, such a photograph also gave the rest of us delight. It was an innocent melting of pop and political culture. Now, we remember Kennedy with a mob girl. Now, Barbra Streisand sings to Bill Clinton, and Marilyn Monroe enters the room to seduce John Kennedy. There are no innocent moments left in America.

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