Clinton as entertainment High-low drama: Whitewater, campaign illegalities frame national soap opera.

February 16, 1997

SCANDALS, SEMI-SCANDALS, quasi-scandals, alleged scandals, purported scandals and all the other titillating matters affecting William Jefferson Clinton, present and past, have become a constant Washington entertainment somewhat akin to long-running soap opera.

Will independent counsel Kenneth Starr indict the president and/or first lady? Will Susan MacDougal start chirping to escape the jail that is her fate for silence? Can ex-hubby Jim MacDougal establish his current veracity by citing how he flunked past lie-detector tests related to previous perjury? Did Webster Hubbell get lucrative employment -- and why? -- after leaving prison from Mr. Clinton's Asian-American fund-raisers? Did some of the latter actually solicit money for the Democratic National Committee from those butchers in Beijing? Will the White House stonewall or cooperate?

These episodes segue into one another to form a meringue of intrigue and anticipation that keeps news junkies, voyeurs, pollsters, politicians and even more normal citizens tuned in for the latest developments. It is not only a drama that will not end; it grows tentacles, creeps into dark alleys, springs surprises, winds back on itself and deliciously distracts from the nation's more serious business. How can term limits, balanced budgets and CPI adjustments compete?

Because of their common roots in H2O, Watergate and Whitewater commingle in the public consciousness. In an atmosphere of constitutional crisis, Richard Nixon's role and cover-up in the most famous of all third-rate burglaries led to his undoing not so long after his re-election. But his poll ratings had to sink out of sight as a prerequisite. And people had to get used to thinking the unthinkable.

Bill Clinton also has blood enemies out to get him. But so far his penchant for hanky-panky and his craving for campaign funds have not alarmed voters who just re-elected him and give him his highest approval ratings yet. With Susan MacDougal's help, he has so impugned Kenneth Starr's supposed non-partisanship that it might take an indictment for recent perjury rather than for long-ago venality in Arkansas to put him on the defensive.

As for closure, none is in sight on anything. Scandals, or the impression of such, seem destined to be a sub-plot or the leitmotiv of the Clinton presidency. At least, it entertains.

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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