May 1 1999

Can We Get Back to the Sex?

When the press gets serious, that’s when it’s time to worry

The pundits prayed for the long national nightmare to end, and free them to enlighten us on serious business like shoring up Social Security. They said the public had it up to here with tawdry scandal, that we craved nothing more than closure. But the vote of closure came at the start of Sweeps Month; what we got was more Monica and Jane Doe No.5 or, in extremis, JonBenet. And during the commercial breaks…Bob Dole, peddling Viagra.

It must have occurred to many that this man came very close to becoming our president. Considering his avowed erectile dysfunction, that might have spared us the trauma of Zippergate. Or not, what do I know? But since there was very little difference between him and Clinton on policy—-in what passed for a campaign debate they agreed, for example, that Social Security needed a serious reshafting—-it transpires that the real choice voters faced in 1996 was between oral sex and geriatric sex.

Of course the punditry put it on a loftier plane. In a pre-election analysis, my genial old colleague Johnny Apple (New York Times, 9/26/96) reported that knowledgeable Washington, “almost without exception, will tell you that [Dole] is strong, honest, a world-class legislative craftsman.”

Strong? Well, Dole was not then advertising his private flabbiness. As Republican leader of the Senate he had stood up manfully for Reagan and Bush and Archer-Daniels-Midland, for Iran-Contra and Ollie North, for Star Wars and ground wars, and for supply-side tax cuts, which promised to balance the budget but instead sextupled the Federal deficit.

As for his world-class legislative craftsmanship, nowhere was it more evident than in the Social Security Reform Act of 1983. Based upon what his co-sponsor Pat Moynihan has acknowledged was a false claim that Social Security was going broke, and based also upon blatantly phony forecasts supplied by Alan Greenspan, the act trimmed benefits and raised payroll taxes so sharply as eventually to put the budget into the black. The perpetrators assured us that it would keep Social Security solvent until the year 2075. During the presidential debate, Dole admitted, charmingly, that they had been mistaken.

A clause winkled into the 1983 act before its consummation pushed the retirement age from 65 to 67, but only for Americans then too young and uninformed to object. Many are still not aware of it. But the national press corps was aware of it.

Now, in my experience, journalists are–well, with a few exceptions–not mean people. So why do they keep playing along?

Monica could explain. Or Henry Kissinger, who said power was the greatest aphrodisiac. He was then serving Richard Nixon (on his knees on one famous occasion), and engaged in wickedness beyond the talents of a Dante to describe. A Frog Prince with all the charisma of a Madeline Albright, he appeared regularly in the popular media with photogenic companions, picked up a slightly used trophy wife, and bewitched such useful admirers as the Kalb brothers of TV and Max Frankel of the New York Times. (For a more current sex symbol, see Alan Greenspan.)

Long before Monica, H.L. Mencken observed how even high-minded journalists are soon seduced by the scent of power in Washington. That does not seem to have changed. When the Lewinsky matter reached Congress, the pack assured us, in chorus, that the powerful Henry Hyde was the most respected man in the House; in the next phase they reassured us that Sen. Robert Byrd was a veritable Solon who could set matters right. Both men were discredited before our eyes.

The pack never learns. A thoroughly discredited president says Social Security needs another fix, and they believe him. He says he’ll use two-thirds of the budget surplus to “shore up” Social Security, and they believe him. A few experts murmur that this is double-talk; the surplus is generated by Social Security and all of it, not just two-thirds, is committed by law to Social Security. No sex appeal in that argument; they repeat, incessantly, that the question is only how much of the surplus need go to Social Security, how much to privatize it, and, as the New York Times (2/14/99) put it, “how, in the long term, retirement benefits should be cut, even though both sides agree this is an essential element in preserving Social Security.”

In the long term, it may be that our media sin less when they concern themselves with sin.