Scandals Sans Bimbos Need Not Apply

By Frank Rich
New York Times, Saturday, December 26, 1998

Don't believe all those year-end lamentations about a divided nation. As we close the book on 1998, there remains one common cultural denominator that does unite us all: sex. We have a sex-addicted President, a sex-obsessed independent counsel, sex-crazed media and a public so entranced by sex that not even McGwire and Sosa can entice us to spend more dollars on Major League Baseball than we do on videos rated XXX. To each American, apparently, his or her own home run.

The trouble with sex as the reigning national pastime, though, is that it uses up all our oxygen. A brain fixated on sex -- even to moralize against it -- has no room for anything else. Non-Monica news and governance disappeared this year, as did the potentially grave non-Monica Clinton scandals. Not even lethal wag-the-dogging of Afghanistan and the Sudan could stand in the way of all flesh.

Sex now rules so completely that politicians may soon become invisible unless they are exposed having illicit sex or are fulminating against someone else caught with his pants down. This month three of President Clinton's foremost adversaries -- Trent Lott, Bob Barr and Dan Burton -- have been tarred by scandals that only yesterday would have caused a major public and media uproar. But G-rated misbehavior now merits only yawns.

Senator Lott and Congressman Barr, for instance, have both been revealed as fawning speakers at events sponsored by the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white-supremacist, immigrant-bashing organization that even David Keene, head of the American Conservative Union, has labeled racist. Among other beliefs, the Council proselytizes that interracial marriage "amounts to white genocide" and that Jews have "turned spite into welfare billions for themselves."

When they were outed for their involvement with this group, both politicians dutifully repudiated its views and then instigated cover-ups to try to camouflage the extent of their actual relationships with it. Barr, who gave the keynote address at the group's June meeting, dismissed his appearance as "brief"; his story has since been demolished in excruciating detail by Jason Zengerle of The New Republic. For his part, Lott vowed he had "no firsthand knowledge of the group's views" -- a denial that became inoperative after Thomas Edsall of The Washington Post came across a 1992 newsletter in which the Senator is pictured telling its members they "stand for the right principles and the right philosophy."

But what's lying about racism compared with lying about sex? Though two black columnists, Colbert I. King of The Washington Post and Stanley Crouch of New York's Daily News, have tried to generate outrage about this story, there are few takers in a market in which sex is the only currency. No "indiscretions" or "improper relationship," no scandal.

The same neglect may well befall the latest revelations about Dan Burton, the pit-bull Congressman who became an instant All-Monica news headliner when he revealed a few months ago that he had fathered a love child. This week in Salon, the reporter Russ Baker alleges that Burton's sexual peccadilloes may be matched by abuse of the same campaign fund-raising laws that were at the center of the botched House hearings he held to nail Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Some of the many Salon findings, drawn from interviews with more than 120 sources, have been amplified in The Washington Post and The Indianapolis Star. But the notion that Burton may have dialed for dollars (and perhaps foreign dollars at that) on Federal premises or put a campaign manager (and part-time clown) on the House payroll is so far at most a blip on the national radar screen.

By contrast, the Christmas Eve edition of USA Today pictures head shots of four likely Presidential candidates -- Lamar Alexander, John Ashcroft, George W. Bush and Dan Quayle -- who have already declared their marital fidelity. In the accompanying article, a religious-right leader favored by the G.O.P., the Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, promises that he'll ask all impending candidates if they are now or have ever been adulterers. In a culture where all values, traditional and otherwise, lead to sex, why even bother to ask if any aspiring President has been a bigot or crook?