Post outrage: all words are created equal

March 29, 1996|By Richard Reeves

LOS ANGELES -- Bill Clinton got where he is by pretty much accepting the golden rules of American celebrity, beginning with ''There is no such thing as bad publicity,'' and ''As long as they spell your name right . . . ''

So he got zinged a little the other night when a New York disc jockey named Don Imus, a man candidate Clinton had courted in the 1992 campaign, was invited to speak in the relatively polite society of the Radio and Television Correspondents Association. As you no doubt know already, Mr. Imus, a witty fellow who operates just inside the lines crossed by America's leading author, Howard Stern, said some sarcastic things about the president and his wife.

Anchors and electronic pundits, of course, bridle at the suggestion that they are peers of the realm of shock jocks, but let's face it, the electrons carrying the message don't know or care about the words themselves. Nor do the president or his peers.

Our politicians of the day want to have it both ways, forgetting that they are playing with fire-mouths. And, if you remember, it was Mr. Clinton who took office proclaiming that he did not need to stroke the Washington press corps because he already had bigger cats of his own, from Larry King to Arsenio Hall to Mr. Imus.

That was a big mistake. So was going on MTV and talking about what kind of undershorts he wears. And so was going to the dinner the other night, or not walking out when Mr. Imus used the name of his wife and the word ''indictment'' in the same sentence. It made me realize why dueling was once acceptable.

Is this flap important? I think so. First, both the correspondents group and the president should have known what Mr. Imus was going to do. He says the same things and more on the air every day. Why should they express shock and outrage? We have post-outrage politics and politicians now. The president and various senators sat there and took it because they accept, often encourage, this level of public dialogue in the world's greatest democracy.

Second, Mr. Imus and Rush Limbaugh, to name another talented entertainer, are the best of their breed. In this new world, where all words are created equal, they are the Thomas Jefferson and John Adams of their crude craft. Listen to G. Gordon Liddy or the local Liddys across the country.

A good reporter, Robert Sam Anson, did that a few weeks ago, driving back and forth from Los Angeles to New York, scanning the radio dial, listening to hundreds of Limbaugh (and Imus) wannabees from city to city and state to state. He was frightened by what he heard: the demonization of Bill and Hillary Clinton.

''Literally fantastic''

''They are talking about assassinating Clinton,'' he said. ''The word is not used, but that is the bottom line. The talk is literally fantastic. They are talking about Whitewater, about the 'murder' of Vince Foster, about the Clintons as evil, the president as a murderer or drug dealer, about 'getting rid' of Bill and Hillary. . . . It's the way they were building up hate of Rabin in Israel before he was killed.''

There are 250 million Americans. Some of them, you may have noticed, are crazy. It takes only one living in a superheated atmosphere of hyperbole, of hate, of conspiracy theories. One man cracks and decides he alone can save the country, save the world from these people called evil. I think the overheated, almost crazed public dialogue in Dallas in 1963 was a big factor in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

We are all to blame for the debasing of the American dialogue, by what we say and what we tolerate. But the people in politics are the worst -- the political consultants searching for the right word to persuade people that Senator X is evil personified; the ideologue politicians (mostly right-wing) who project a black-and-white world of good and evil and demand the destruction of the evil; and the president himself, who seems to prefer any public embarrassment to private life.

So, yes, the Imus thing is important and dangerous, too. It is part of something bigger, the new American contempt for each other and the self-contempt that inevitably follows.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/29/96

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