THE press, including newspapers that twice endorsed Bill Clinton for the highest honor this nation can confer, has now turned on him with a vengeance resembling the ''right-wing hate groups'' it frequently bashes.
But most of those now condemning the president over allegations about immoral and illegal conduct have played the role of enabler. They have done for the president what people who refuse to confront an alcoholic do -- enable that person to justify continued drinking and deny the need to seek professional help.
With the exception of the ever-vigilant Washington Times and some reporting by the Los Angeles Times, the writing, commentary and broadcasting masquerading as reporting in the mainstream press had been downright worshipful. No wonder the Clintons were led to believe they could get away with private indiscretions and public policies free of the scrutiny the press is supposed to exercise on the public's behalf.
Perhaps the most obsequious in a long list of favorable quotes about the Clintons came only a year ago from television critic Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times. After the president's second inaugural address, Mr. Rosenberg wrote: ''His sturdy jaw precedes him. He smiles from sea to shining sea. Is this president a candidate for Mount Rushmore or what? In fact, when it comes to influencing the public, a single medley of expressions from Clinton may be worth much more, to much of America, than every ugly accusation Paula Jones can muster.''
What president, after reading that, would not think he could get away with anything, including sex in the White House with women not his wife?
In 1992, Time magazine's Michael Duffy wrote: ''Ever since the Clarence Thomas hearings the Republican Party has been struggling to overcome the perception that its regard for women is only a notch or two higher than that of the Navy Tailhook Association.''
If the charges against Mr. Clinton prove true, you might conclude that his regard for women is a notch or two lower than the Navy pilots implicated in the sexual escapades at the Tailhook parties, since Mr. Clinton is the commander in chief and is supposed to set a good example.
Besides, how can a politician be for women if he treats them as his personal sex toys?
Anchor weighing in
Speaking during a satellite interview with Mr. Clinton on May 27, 1993, and referring to his own short-lived pairing with Connie Chung, CBS News anchor Dan Rather said: ''If we could be one-hundredth as great as you and Hillary Rodham Clinton have been in the White House, we'd take it right now and walk away winners. Thank you very much and tell Mrs. Clinton we respect her and we're pulling for her.''
On issues, too, the press usually took the Clintons' side, trashing Republican proposals as ''harsh,'' ''mean-spirited'' and ''mean,'' and lauding Clinton administration proposals as ''compassionate,'' ''fair'' and ''bold.''
In Arkansas, Mr. Clinton proved he could fool most of the people most of the time. The national press, now in such agony over the man it helped impose on the United States, helped him fool most of the American people most of the time. Until now.
Although Mr. Clinton enjoyed votes and public support, he remains the draft dodger in the Vietnam War who enlisted in the sexual revolution and rose to become a four-star general, the baby boomer president from a generation that told us character didn't matter, that a marriage license was merely ink stains dried upon some line, and that you could do as you wish sexually without consequences.
But now, four decades after the revolution began with Hugh Hefner's ''Playboy philosophy'' (followed by Cosmopolitan magazine's Helen Gurley Brown's endorsement of sexual promiscuity for women), the casualties litter the battlefield.
The ''revolutionaries'' probably won't accept responsibility for what they've wrought, and their contemporaries in the press are not about to hold them accountable.
If they did, they would have to own up to their own responsibility in giving the boomer in chief a blanket pardon.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 1/28/98