PRESIDENT Clinton's latest imbroglio may not be scandal lite, but it certainly is scandal quick, first propelled as if by demons and then, slowing down, perhaps to disappear, but probably just resting and gathering strength for another torrent of lurid installments.
Whatever, its tempo is quite different from that of the Watergate affair a generation ago, which, in retrospect anyway, moved at a stately, measured pace, like a minuet. Then, the cadence seemed to be report, White House denial, more reports, more denials and later, House investigations led by the late Rep. Sam Ervin, punctuated and enlivened by such characters as G. Gordon Liddy, John Dean and Martha Mitchell. Hillary Rodham, you may recall, was a junior investigator.
It was increasingly complicated and increasingly sad, and because the questions and details were fed to us and discussed over a two-year period, almost understandable.
The cause of the difference in rhythm is technological. Watergate was before computers were on virtually every reporter's desk as well as the engines of composing and printing; it was before the Internet added its amorphous coverage; and it was before cable television littered the airways.
Typewriters, manual typesetting and only three major networks made dispelling the news a slow, almost ponderous, process, allowing more time to double-check facts before reporting stories, allowing more time to think, not just react.
The end result of the high-technological developments has changed reporting, publishing and interpreting the news (with the last the most vital and immediate of all), and makes us feel as if we're on speed. The news spews out, taking on a life of its own, allowing people like Internet gossip Matt Drudge (perfect name) to broaden and hasten the chase. It is technology -- coupled with a parade of talking heads -- at its most compelling, entertaining and destructive, all at once. It is the information age writ fast and dangerous, giving us titillation and immediate assessment in lieu of an orderly dissemination of facts. (Meanwhile, the accused, usually the fastest talker of them all, responds with the speed of the pony express.)
"There is no speed limit on the electronic highway," wrote Nicholas Negroponte in "Being Digital." There is, however, an inherent speed limit in human brains, and we're going to have to learn how to integrate the two if this exciting and increasingly worldwide technology is to work for us.
Ann Egerton writes from Baltimore.
Pub Date: 2/13/98