By Michael Miner

Lessons Never Learned

No, last week’s current events don’t fit comfortably into the classroom. The traditional conduit for introducing young minds to matters of state is the Weekly Reader, and the editor in chief admits to feeling flummoxed. “I really want to know what parents would like us to do, as well as schools,” Sandra Maccarone told me. “It’s a conundrum. It’s probably the hardest thing we’ve ever faced. Richard Nixon looks like a piece of cake compared to this.”

The issues of Watergate, she said, were essentially “lying and covering up,” which kids have been told are wrong since they left the cradle. “You don’t lie and cover up. This is basically the same thing. But it’s being unfaithful–that’s the issue in adultery. I don’t know if kids understand this. Kids who have been through divorce, maybe. I don’t know how we would deal with that truthfully. So many parents want whatever their kids know about sex to come from them.”

Maccarone oversees eight versions of the Weekly Readers written for children from prekindergarten through grade six, Current Events for older kids, and several other children’s magazines. The editors of each magazine are guided by an advisory board of six teachers, and the staff make frequent visits to classrooms in Stamford, Connecticut, where the Weekly Reader is based, to speak with teachers, parents, and students. She wants to hear from all these voices before she puts a word on paper.

But ultimately she expects to write about the president’s troubles in the broadest, most elemental strokes. “The issue is, did he tell the truth? The problem of what he didn’t tell the truth about is way too difficult for some of these kids. What we tell kids is that regardless of the pressure, you should tell the truth. No one is immune from that, not even the president.”

So there’s a way to write about this without getting into adultery? I asked.

“I think there is. Yes, I hope to God there is. We talk about character. We talk about responsibility. We talk about veracity with them. We’re always talking about how important it is to own up to what you’ve done. If it’s true that the leader of our country didn’t, we need to talk about that he didn’t, not why he didn’t. He didn’t tell the truth, if that’s what it’s all about. Or he told somebody to lie. And that’s not what you want the leader of the country to do.

“If that’s what he did. And of course today he categorically denied it.” She’d just seen Clinton, on television, propose a massive new education program, then give the teeming reporters the statement they’d come for. She said the sight made her feel “like I’m out in the bay with a basket of chum, and the crabs are coming to feed on it.”

There’s not a whisper of the president’s troubles in this week’s Readers. “I would hate to go out and say he’s accused without having any more than that,” Maccarone told me. “Otherwise, we’d be doing what everybody else is doing–and I don’t think that’s right with schoolkids. I really want the truth instead of conjecture. There has to be good, solid evidence that he did it or that he’s covering up. It’s got to be factual, it’s got to be balanced, it’s got to be complete. If I were a teacher I wouldn’t want to read an article from Weekly Reader that left me hanging.”

On Monday, when we spoke, she had no plans to introduce the subject next week either. But that could change. “It depends on what we know by Friday,” she said. “We could pull another story and put it in.”

A Bad Case of Albitis

(The following is an expression of rage and makes assumptions unbecoming to a journalist.)

The president said he was hard at work honing his State of the Union address. The First Lady came over to examine the scribbled brainstorms that now littered his desk.

She read, “As the insatiable media rush to judge my husband, I find it necessary to acknowledge that I am, indeed, a daughter of Sappho. I say this without undue pride or any shame, but rather to stand by the man who is my soul mate in our desire to serve the American people. Our marriage, if unorthodox, is deeply rewarding to us both. It goes without saying that he has my permission to seek sexual solace where he may, and that his discretion in these matters is among his most admirable qualities.”

She tossed that piece of paper aside. “Interesting,” she said.

She picked up another. “In a historic international telephone call, Pope John Paul II today heard confession from President Bill Clinton and forgave him all his sins. The pope then put Fidel Castro on the line, and the president warned the communist despot that an attempt to seize the pontiff and condemn him to Cuban gulag would infuriate the American people and be met by overwhelming force.”

“My, we’ve been busy, haven’t we?” said the First Lady.

“If any one of these work I’ll be out from under,” the president mused.

“I’m not so sure about the second one,” said the First Lady. “The most interesting side to this fiasco is that it’s a devastating critical rebuttal to Wag the Dog.”

The president nodded. “And most welcome too. The people are sick and tired of knee-jerk Hollywood cynicism.”

“World War III wouldn’t blow this baby out of the headlines.”

“That’s a tack worth taking,” said the president. “The death of cynicism. The rebirth of good, old-fashioned American idealism. It’s a surefire applause getter. Not to mention the shot in the arm to family values. You’ve seen the mail.”

Indeed she had. Middle-aged husbands and wives from all over America had written gratefully to say they’d watched Ted Koppel discussing the finer points of oral sex, then shut off the TV and done things together they hadn’t done in decades.

“Funny, that wasn’t my reaction,” she said.

“No, no, it wasn’t,” sighed the president. “But you do recognize the blatant double standard. If you’re 21 you’re more than old enough to die defending your country. You’re more than old enough to fry for your crimes in the electric chair. But for some reason you’re still too young to sleep with the president.”

“Go figure,” said the First Lady.

“Kenneth Starr wants to drag her reputation through the mire. But my lips are sealed. Her honor’s safe with me.”

Gazing presidentially out over the Rose Garden, he fell into contemplation of his probity.

“The American media is a desperate beast,” he said at last. “What if we turned its appetites against it? What if I ended my magisterial silence and shifted to full confessional mode? I could hold two, maybe three news conferences a day, each one offering fresh confessions.”

“Wouldn’t you run out of material?” said the First Lady.

“Not necessarily. And in 48 hours no one would care. Sam Donaldson would beg me, ‘Mr. President, when do you intend to shut up and go back to running the country?’ And I’d say, ‘Sam, Kenneth Starr insists I have a duty to wash my dirty linen in public, and I respect the office of the independent counsel.’ There’d be a groundswell of revulsion against that sanctimonious hack, and then watch my polls shoot right back up! You do know, don’t you, the American people’s favorite image of their president?”

No, the First Lady didn’t.

He tried a boyish grin. “Lovable scamp.”

“You betcha,” she said.

“It’s just an idea,” he said forlornly.

She saw he could burst into tears at any second. The big lug–his bravado was an inch deep! How could she think of leaving now?

“Needs refinement. Here’s what we do,” she said. “The one good thing about Paula Jones–she made everyone forget about Gennifer Flowers. The good thing about Monica Lewinsky–who cares anymore about Paula Jones?”

“I see where you’re going with this.”

“We need to find a 16-year-old 4-H student who swears she’ll never part with her letter sweater. I don’t need to say why. First we sic Starr on her. Then we sic the Times and the Post on Starr. Leak it to Drudge. The media will have a field day, and Monica Lewinsky is instant history. Your approval rating hits zero. But when the DNA is tested by Geraldo on national TV and turns out to be bull semen, you claim vindication–and Starr slinks off to Pepperdine.”

“Well, all right. But for the record, and to keep our marriage strong, there is no improper relationship between me and a 16-year-old.”

“I appreciate that.”

Starr’s Open Season

An ample response to the catastrophe in Washington has required holding two incompatible ideas in mind. It is necessary to be appalled by the president, but also by his inquisitor.

Frank Rich wrote a column in the New York Times suggesting that Clinton and Starr deserve each other, but it’s been easier for journalism to curse them in separate breaths. In Sunday’s Times Maureen Dowd predicted that Clinton “has finally determined his own place in history. He will be remembered as the priapic President,” and Bob Herbert raged at his years of “cheap lies and easy deceptions.” On the same op-ed page legal writer Jeffrey Rosen denounced the Independent Counsel Act as “illiberal and dangerously unrestrained” and Starr for perpetrating a “disgraceful sting operation” to get Monica Lewinsky on tape. Last Friday’s lead editorial in the Tribune formally presumed Clinton’s innocence, but observed that the president “could fairly be said to have invited an accusation of this sort and to have cultivated the atmosphere in which it finds credibility with a majority of the American people.” The second editorial that day was headlined “Starr’s prosecutorial overreach,” and it wondered, “What in the world does Monica Lewinsky have to do with Whitewater?”

This Tribune editorial followed by a few days a prescient New Republic cover story that focused on the indicted former secretary of agriculture and was headlined “Does This Man Belong in Prison? Michael Espy, the Special Prosecutor, and the Criminalization of American Politics.” According to senior editor David Grann, “Most cases against public officials today focus on the appearance of crimes rather than actual crimes. In so doing, they invert the very notion upon which the Founders predicated American democracy: that we are not angels, and that mere laws cannot make us so.” There is no starker picture of the sin made criminal than the philanderer haunted by his Javert.

The Tribune has railed against special prosecutors since Lawrence Walsh spent seven years and $40 million probing Iran-Contra. It opposed the renewal of the Independent Counsel Act in 1994 and has criticized it ever since. Last August it complained that independent counsel Donald Smaltz “has spent more time investigating Espy [three years at that point] than Espy spent as agriculture secretary” and concluded that the “only way this $8.6 million Cadillac of criminal investigations will have been justified is if it provokes Congress to do away with the independent-counsel law.”

And when Janet Reno decided last December against appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the fund-raising tactics of Clinton and Al Gore, the Tribune swam against the tide by praising her for refusing “to add to the prosecutorial promiscuity that increasingly blights America’s civil life.”

All promiscuity is not created equal. Some is hidden from taxpayers and some is funded by them, as Starr has been funded since 1994. Clinton’s future may turn on which offends the public more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Mike Werner.