Our culture thrives on cheap thrills

January 29, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

WASHINGTON - I watched Bill Clinton's speech from a crowded hotel bar around the corner from the White House. All hope of dignity, abandon here. The president opened by saying, "My fellow Americans, since the last time we met in this chamber ... " - and some guy at the bar hollered, in a mock Clinton accent, "... ah've had more broads. ... "

The speech had the feel of grand charade. Everybody was smiling as though none of this Monica Lewinsky business was happening. The president entered like a beaming guy who's just walked into his surprise party, as though nobody's had the heart to tell him this terrible predicament he's in.

This guy should have the world in his hands, instead of some young girl. The speech was a 75-minute recitation of what wonderful shape the country's in. He seemed to be thinking, If I talk long enough, maybe they'll forget this other nonsense. He seemed to be saying, Look at all I've done for you. Look at the thriving economy, look at falling crime. Can't you love me for all of this, and forget this Monica nonsense?

"The state of our union is strong," Clinton said.

"What about the state of your union?" some guy at the hotel bar hollered.

But the talk sputtered after a while. The barroom cynicism turned to indifference when it became clear Clinton wouldn't be talking about his sex life. People got tired of punching a fellow who wasn't punching back.

The crowd began to thin. The cries about White House broads went away.

Not that Clinton heard any of it. He was in his own zone now, which seemed to have nothing to do with his most pressing reality. He's got 100 million people listening for clues about Monica, and he wants to tell us about Social Security, about the future of our children, about making neighborhoods safe. What kind of dopes does this guy play us for, when he knows we tuned in for a few cheap thrills?

It's what the culture's become, and Clinton's both a victim of it and an instigator. A few blocks from the White House - actually, it's 514 Tenth St. - there is the Peterson House. It's a hallowed old tourist spot. A sign out front explains, this is the place where the wounded Abraham Lincoln breathed his last. So you feel you've stumbled onto something pretty solemn, an encounter with the nation's secular saint.

But, two doors away, there is P&D Souvenir Shop. Displayed on its windows are postcards. There's one with four reporters questioning an unclothed woman on a bed. One asks, "What do you say, Miss? He says you had sex, but he says he never had an orgasm." The card's captioned, "The Making of a President."

And this is the mild stuff. There are prominently displayed photos of Clinton's and Al Gore's faces superimposed on half-clothed biker boy bodies. There's another composite of a grinning Hillary Rodham Clinton in a leather bondage outfit.

This is the fallout from decades of social upheaval in this country. Clinton came of age in a time of loosening sexual morality, and seems to have craved his share of the action. In most families, this is a matter between husband and wife, but we now have not only sexy Clinton postcards but the very important Kenneth Starr wishing to make this a federal case, strictly for the good of the country.

Outside E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse here, we have about a hundred reporters and camera crews gathered this week, as a grand jury listens to the details of the Monica Lewinsky case.

As it happens, grand jury proceedings are supposed to be secret. But no matter. This horde was gathered because, heaven forbid, they might miss the tiniest lurid detail about life at the White House.

And it's amazing to see. On Tuesday, the day of Clinton's big speech, two guys in dark suits emerged from the courthouse, heads down, carrying attache cases. They were immediately surrounded, but kept moving up Constitution Avenue.

L "Can you tell us what went on in there?" a reporter shouted.

The two guys kept their faces down and said nothing.

"What was the mood in there?"

No comment.

"Did Monica's name come up?"

The two guys fought for each little inch of sidewalk. This swarm of cameras and boom microphones, had to be a hundred people, shuffled up Constitution all the way from Third to Sixth, three long blocks, a big, clumsy, stumbling block of humanity in the very shadow of the Capitol.

And then came a reporter's quizzical little voice, and then another:

"Who are these guys, anyway?"

"Does anybody know who these guys are?"

Several reporters turned to Bob Franken, the CNN Capitol Hill veteran, who shrugged, "I haven't the slightest idea."

"Sir," somebody asked the two guys now, "could you tell us your names?"

They would not. They might have been a couple of insurance adjusters, or civil servants, or tourists who took a wrong turn. But everybody went after them because nobody wants to risk

missing their little piece of instant history.

It's a sleazy piece of history, but it's all we seem to want right now. At the hotel bar where I watched the president's speech, there were about 50 people gathered when he started. It was wet and raw outside. By the time Clinton finished, the bar was about empty. If he wasn't going to talk about sex, people were just as happy to go stand in the rain.

Pub Date: 1/29/98

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