It will never be the same again Essay: For whatever else he's done -- or not done -- it's clear William Jefferson Clinton has diminished the presidency.

September 14, 1998|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

So now it's all out. All there. It's all about the 42nd president of the United States; it only reads like a 15-year-old's clumsy erotic adventures in his mother's house. It took place in the White House, but not the White House as you see it if you take the tour. This is White House as highway rest stop.

The information began crossing the national wire in a series of dispatches early Friday evening: "StarrReport-LongExcerpt," "StarrReport-MediumExcerpt," "StarrReport-ShortExcerpt." By this morning, Friday afternoon will seem like some golden age of American innocence. Time warps in the face of endlessly mounting information.

Ah, remember those good old days, people might say, that Friday afternoon before the Starr report went public? Remember when we still had our childlike illusions? When we could only imagine what really happened between President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky? When we didn't know exactly where or how many times or what day or what position or what they were wearing or if smoking materials were involved? Remember when we could look at the president of the United States, our commander in chief, and not see a picture suited to a pornographic video?

Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr delivered the goods, all right. Eighteen boxes of documents, 18 boxes of copies, hundreds of pages taken in two Chevy Suburbans to a room at the Gerald R. Ford office building on Capitol Hill that was locked and guarded by men carrying guns. Such an impressive display of dignity and protocol befitting the solemn business of government, befitting such important information. Which is what this is, right? This is big stuff, right? This is about the fate of the leader of the Free World. This is about possible high crimes, misdemeanors and impeachment.

Listen carefully for the sound of a presidency shrinking. The man, the office, the works. Remember those political cartoons from the latter years of the Jimmy Carter administration? Remember how Carter got smaller and smaller in the chair as the months went by? By this morning, the Bill Clinton of the moment may make Jimmy Carter look like Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The scholars talk about a president's "moral authority" as an instrument of persuasion, a force he wields when the time comes to take a stand, to rally legislators and public sentiment. By this morning, the notion of presidential "moral authority" may seem quaint. As quaint as the fact that on the same Friday afternoon that the Starr report is made public, the U.S. House subcommittee on trade and consumer protection holds a hearing on "protecting children from inappropriate material on the Internet."

Ah, those were the days. When it was possible to separate "inappropriate material" from weighty matters of state. When the personal and the official were divided by some tacit cultural/journalistic conceit that involved averting the eyes.

The New York Post captured the situation nicely, though perhaps inadvertently, on Page 1 the morning after the Starr report reached Congress. "BILL IN A BOX" screamed the headline next to a photograph of Clinton, his hands posed as if in prayer. Then, at the top of Page 1, another headline: "Heather and Marv Hitched," about Marv Albert's marriage to Heather Faulkiner.

Bill and Marv on the same page -- nice fit, nice touch. It's come to this. It's been coming for a while. With Diana and Dodi and Frank and Kathie Lee and Liz and Hugh and Bill and Gennifer and Bill and Paula and Bill and Kathleen and now Bill and Monica, Monica, Monica. Leader of the Free World, sportscaster, movie actor, TV chat-show host. Whatever. A celebrity is a celebrity. You know things about Marv Albert and Bill Clinton that you probably don't know and would not expect to know about your closest friends. Because your closest friends are not celebrities.

Clinton "is not only commander in chief, but celebrity in chief," says Michael Genovese, who wrote "The Paradoxes of the American Presidency." The president has traditionally been a figure of symbolic, mythic stature, a status requiring a certain measure of detachment. Genovese says this is "increasingly difficult to do in an age when the presidency is a great public spectacle."

Spectacle, indeed. In the report, of course, are allegations of perjury, of obstruction of justice. But there are also those details of 10 sexual encounters in the White House, one after the president attended Easter Sunday church services with his wife. As the days go by, the information permeates a culture whose concepts of the president and the presidency were deeply conflicted long before William Jefferson Clinton appeared on the scene.

"Americans do want presidents to be of us, but above us. We want them to be special people," says Robert E. Denton Jr., who wrote "The Symbolic Dimensions of the American Presidency." He says: "The whole office is paradoxical."

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