- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2000

The joke's on the media, elitesmedia, elites

There is a Monty Python skit in which a British Army major, acting as censor for an army training film, stops the cameras and tells the director: "You can't film that. I like a good joke as well as the next chap, but … . Well, perhaps not quite as well … . Well, actually I have no sense of humor at all."

Today, regretfully, I find myself in the role of the humorless, moralizing Army major. Almost alone amongst the 2,000 guests at the White House Correspondent's Dinner, I was appalled both by President Clinton's performance and by the positive response of the audience.

I have sat through eight years of Mr. Clinton's performances at these press dinners. The jokes are always funny, his delivery is invariably impeccable, the film shorts are produced at prime-time quality. But the audience, made up of the political and media leadership of the country, ought to be ashamed of itself for laughing and popping out of its chairs for repeated standing ovations. Because that hotel ballroom is not a night club, and Bill Clinton isn't a stand-up comic. He is the president of the United States, and there must always be a moral component to the assessment of his comments, whether they are funny or serious. In this instance, humor should not be its own reward.

Mr. Clinton gets his laughs by making fun of his most serious moral and legal transgressions. By gaining the laughter of the political and media elites in the audience, he implicates them as after-the-fact co-conspirators with him. In his most recent performance he joked about his administration's willful failure to produce legally subpoenaed documents. He also made light of the travel office scandal.

For those who don't remember the details, that scandal involved the president and first lady ordering the arrest, indictment and prosecution of a long-term, nonpolitical White House employee who ran the travel office Billy Dale because they wanted his and other jobs for Mr. Clinton's friends and relatives. The Clintons using the full powers of the FBI and Justice Department bankrupted Mr. Dale, ruined his career, and terrorized his family. When Mr. Dale finally got to trial, he was acquitted in 90 minutes by a Washington jury. Mr. Clinton could have fired Mr. Dale, but that would have revealed Mr. Clinton's patronage motivations so he ruined a man's life instead.

But, typical of the moral obtuseness of the Washington political class was The Washington Post's description of Mr. Clinton on this point: "With excellent comedic timing, Clinton also compared his first year to that of 'The West Wing' ('The critics just hated my travel office episode,' he deadpanned)."

The Washington Post, reflecting perfectly the mood in the audience that night, totally missed the point, reporting: "Clinton stole the show with his mix of self-deprecation and cautiously placed barbs."

Good grief. Mr. Clinton was not deprecating himself, he was rubbing the nation's nose in his dirty business. At previous press dinners, Mr. Clinton has made fun of his obstructing justice, perjury and the Lincoln Bedroom campaign finance abuses. In one of those jokes he said that the good thing about Chelsea's going off to college was it gave him another room at the White House to rent out to big contributors.

The fact that the jokes might be funny and well-delivered doesn't mean the audience ought to laugh with Mr. Clinton. Decent people no longer laugh at racist jokes because there is nothing funny about racism. And there is nothing funny about Bill Clinton's shameful conduct as president. If Nixon had been able to deliver a 20 minute stand-up routine, should that have excused his transgressions? "Take my chief of staff … please. If you like the edited transcripts, you'll love the 18-minute gap. Watergate, that's not a word, it's a sentence."

Almost 500 years ago, Michel de Montaigne, the French statesman and essayist, wisely wrote: "We owe subjection and obedience equally to all kings, for that concerns their office; but we do not owe esteem, any more than affection, except to their virtue."

I long ago came to expect that Mr. Clinton would always do his worst. And, more damaging to democracy than his conduct has been his plausible, but wrong, claim that "everybody does it." To have the leaders of the media and politics in one room laughing at his demeaning jokes only perpetuates Mr. Clinton's cruelest lie.

If the great majority of the public comes to believe that all politicians are as morally and legally corrupt as Mr. Clinton, then democracy will be in desperate danger. We are already largely a government and constitution by opinion poll. It is late, but not too late, for the Washington elite to provide the public with a wise, moral guidance regarding the conduct of our leaders which is the only justification for an elite's existence.

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