SOLOMON: Presidential Scandals

Let's face it: Sensational news coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal is going to continue for a long time. Despite all the media criticism of Kenneth Starr, the co-dependent counsel is locked in a passionate embrace with the Washington press corps. They seem to need each other very badly.In this protracted drama, the players are acting out roles that have become quite tedious. From stage right, accomplished Clinton-haters feint and thrust with whatever sharp objects are available. Meanwhile, Starr's opponents keep decrying his abuse of power. The performances are about as subtle as bare-knuckled brawls.If you could judge a president by his media enemies, then Bill Clinton would be laudable. With so many ghoulish commentators now gliding across TV screens to promote scenarios for impeachment, it's tempting to defend Clinton just for the sake of minimal decency. He may be a chronic dissembler -- but the methods and agendas of his right-wing foes are much more odious.Media outlets frequently offer a pair of such choices. The assumption seems to be that we should function in a binary style, choosing one side or the other -- with both options handed down from on high. But that process is a parody of democracy, treating us as passive consumers in a political marketplace.By now, we're accustomed to media debates that focus on the politics of personalities. So, vast amounts of ink and air time explore a president's "character" -- without delving into the character of the overall system that the president is serving.If we look back on the most famous White House scandals of recent decades, it should give us pause that the besieged president never had to answer for the most serious consequences of his actions.President Nixon's foul deeds related to Watergate would have warranted impeachment if he had not resigned. But other notable things were also going on: While claiming to seek peace, Nixon fueled the war in Southeast Asia. Openly and covertly, American bombers dropped huge quantities of explosives on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.Shortly after becoming president, Nixon ordered secret air attacks on Cambodia. Between March 1969 and May 1970, the U.S. military flew 3,630 bombing raids over Cambodia. The Nixon administration falsified Pentagon records to hide the bombing from Congress.During Nixon's presidency, the death toll included more than 25,000 U.S. soldiers and half a million Vietnamese people -- most of them civilians. The Watergate break-in at Democratic Party headquarters, of course, became a gigantic media scandal. Yet Nixon's murderous orders never ranked as scandalous. When he died in April 1994, many obituaries praised him as a genius in "foreign policy."Midway through President Reagan's second term, when the Iran-Contra scandal erupted, the news media emphasized the arms- for-hostages deal that sent missiles to the Iranians and funneled profits to the Nicaraguan Contras. But we heard little about the end use of the money -- supplying a Contra army that routinely massacred civilians.Bill Clinton has excelled at put-people-first rhetoric. But ever since he became president, Clinton has allowed the preferences of Wall Street to determine the major economic decisions of the Executive Branch. As with previous administrations, the desires of economic elites have run roughshod over the interests of most people. Unfortunately, in the search for scandal, the usual media view is that such matters are irrelevant and immaterial -- about policy, not legality.Every president in memory has purposely misled the public about important issues. Leaders perched at the top of our country's power pyramid are unlikely to be candid about the enormous inequities that persist. And they know that dissembling, in most cases, is not against the law.But the news media should be journalistic, not merely legalistic. Even if a president's actions are legal, they may still be truly scandalous -- deserving tough scrutiny instead of winks and shrugs. Or have we sunk so low that only charges of lawbreaking in high places can rise to the level of intense media concern?

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