When all this was just about Paula Jones, I was already worried that it was a very bad idea to allow a sitting president to be sued privately. As a matter of cost-benefit analysis, there is simply too much at stake to allow private civil disputes to derail the entire executive branch and our commander in chief. Once a president is actually elected, the magnitude of palace politics allows for too many opportunities to use such litigation for subversive political ends. For what it's worth at this point, I think we ought to have extended the statute of limitations and settled upon some form of plaintiff compensation for the unusual measure of Jones's having to wait until the end of Clinton's second term.

One of the great dilemmas posed by such suits is embodied in the current crisis. A defendant--or any party in private litigation--is constrained by the rules of evidence, and the proceedings are presumably monitored by a judge and lawyers so as to maintain an orderly unfolding of fact winnowed from wild rumor, of reason winnowed from inflammatory allegation. The political sphere, on the other hand, is nothing if not filled with intrigue and hyperbole, backroom deals and public relations. This contrast between the constraint of the courtroom and the noisy brawl of soapbox politics is precisely the catch-22 in which President Clinton is now caught.

Does he follow the advice of lawyers and keep his mouth shut in deference to the presumed orderliness and due process of a grand jury investigation? Or does he defer to the demands of his office, the exigencies of the political, which yammer for him to make a full accounting to his constituents as loudly and quickly as possible?

The tension between these two simultaneously imposed procedural offerings is ultimately paralyzing. And with no clarity about procedural standards, the biggest propaganda machine will surely win; the loudest mouth, even if it's Rush Limbaugh's, will easily enjoy the last laugh.

Ironically, this dilemma was precisely the one imposed upon Lani Guinier when she went through the rabid maligning and misrepre-sentation of her scholarship that was so carefully orchestrated by the same right-wing think tanks that have kept Ken Starr so busy with imagined graft for these many years. Rather than by the ethical constraint of trial practice, however, Guinier was silenced by a White House protocol that did not allow her to speak; she was caught between the perceived political need for damage-controlling presidential aloofness from what watchers of tabloid television believed her to stand for, and the straightforward--published, even--truth of what she stood for.

Similarly, Anita Hill, in her most recent book, Speaking Truth to Power, describes how she was hamstrung by such a procedural split: she was supposedly a character witness in a judicial appointment process, and as such there were plenty of procedural options by which the Senate could have allowed her testimony to proceed without it becoming a spectacle of voyeuristic excess, a media circus par excellence. Instead, she found herself caught up in a mock ''trial'' in which all of the rules of evidence were, indeed, nothing less than mocked.

The jumbling of process achieved by pitting one set of standards against another is the core of what I find most troubling about this current made-for-TV spectacle. The resulting unregulated hoopla obscures the degree to which, as of this writing, there is no case against the president. This is not Watergate, where there was a confirmed burglary, confirmed illegal bugging, and confirmed Republican involvement in plans to bring down the Democratic Party by a confirmed web of planted lies.

Nor is this a ''he said, she said'' situation. President Clinton has denied that there was an affair; so has Monica Lewinsky, under oath.

Of course, there is this other, more tantalizing swirl of rumor to contend with: a cottage industry has arisen from just listing all the words Clinton didn't use in denying the affair. You could fill a dictionary with 'em! And rumor has it that, after nearly a 10-hour interrogation with no lawyer, Lewinsky has changed her story. Rumor also has it that she lives with her mother, coincidentally enough, in the Watergate apartment complex. Rumor also has it that her mother concocted a story about having had an affair with Placido Domingo, which Domingo denied. ''Selectively leaked'' tapes seem to indicate that Lewinsky ''confessed''--the press keeps using that word--all sorts of juicy tidbits to a White House staffer hired during the Bush administration, Linda Tripp. (It is apparently fact, not rumor, that Tripp's now famous literary agent, Lucianne Goldberg, began her career as a paid operative in Richard Nixon's campaign of dirty tricks: Goldberg went to work for George McGovern for the sole purpose of subverting his candidacy. Tripp was one of the last people to see Vincent Foster alive. And I'm sure it was nothing more than a big goofy accident that Tripp was the one who told the press all about how another young woman, Kathleen Willey, emerged from the president's office looking rumpled and ''suspiciously'' happy.)

A good many of the rumors now fogging the national atmosphere seem to have emanated from Ken Starr's office, which is also quite peculiar. It is peculiar because this is supposedly an investigation for a putative grand jury proceeding, ordinarily covered by a blanket of silence. Ordinarily someone would be held in contempt for such an inflammatory and unsubstantiated revelation--but what to do when it seems that Starr's chamber is the contemptuous source itself? What to do when the ''independent'' counsel seems to be a hired gun of the far right wing, a provocateur of the first order? What to do when the fox is guarding the henhouse of truth?

That this is palace politics must be clear to every halfway thoughtful person. It's not quite the alien baby the Clintons were supposed to have adopted, but because the allegations involve near terrestrials, there's even a chance that they could be true. Besides, this is so much sexier than your average alien plot. While some people have described the national response as puritanical, I think it's more like a Victorian boarding school spanking fantasy. Young master Billy has been accused of improper dalliances, so we are going to flay his nether parts mercilessly while assuring him that it hurts us ever so much more than it hurts him.

But, seriously, what if it were true? Sexual scandal, no less than sexual harassment, is troubling because it is private, embarrassing, humiliating, demeaning. It ought to be handled with dignity and some sheltering of those involved. There is no dignity in any of this. And whether in going after Anita Hill or promoting Paula Jones or in slicing Monica Lewinsky into a thousand little pieces, the thing that this nation still seems not to have ''gotten'' is the need for dignified resolution. But of course real remediation is only relevant if you truly believe that this is not a vendetta against the Clintons--if you really believe that Ken Starr is not at all concerned with his friend Clarence Thomas's vindication, the recoupment of Richard Nixon's reputation, the fulfillment of Ronald Reagan's dreamiest dreams, and the sinister humor of the Terminator's ''gotcha''-style endings.

But what is happening to the entire executive branch is distressing, far beyond the stew of fact versus nonfact: doubt, cast like a rain of stones, is endangering not just domestic stability but the value of our currency, the making of war and peace, the standing of our country in the community of nations. Yet with all that at stake, the level of vehement, unsubstantiated mudslinging, and the rollicking abandonment of any presumption of innocence or office are unprecedented, as though the Super Bowl were mere warm-up for the State of the Union. Pass the chips, put the brewskies on ice. A wild barrage of unproven allegations has hardened into a ''pattern'' of quasifact. The stage is set for ''payback,'' as Rush Limbaugh keeps characterizing the matter; nags and feminazis, up yours, he chortles with a vengeance which he seems to think is being exacted in the name of Vietnam, political incorrectness, oppressed conservatives, cigar smokers, beef eaters, and the global economy.

We Americans have always liked to think of ourselves as a fair people. But I think in recent years we have given ourselves over to a sensationalizing habit of thought--an orgy of voyeurism that is related to the kind of thinking that makes difficult the lives of those who must go through the world as any kind of stereotype--whether ''beautiful blond'' women, ''ugly feminists,'' ''young black males,'' gays, the disabled, or ''straight white men'' for that matter. This is not just about national moods or creeping ''cynicism''; it is also an abandonment of considered procedures for debate in favor of the worst kinds of immorality plays. It is media-assisted political pornography--the same pornography that cost this nation the open input of one of our most intelligent female voices and the potential for a new and expansive image of the First Lady's role. Instead, the horrific typecasting of Hillary Rodham Clinton, at the beginning of this administration, effectively drove her out of any meaningful public life other than photo ops with needy children.

The whoo-dingy, bread-and-circus nature of this should give us pause; the appalling seriousness of what is at stake in this crisis deserves some quiet digestion, some waiting rather than imagining, on the part of us the citizenry. The last thing that gave the media such a will to live was the O.J. Simpson verdict, which, serendipitously enough, threatened to preempt the last State of the Union message. The New York Times even ran a piece about how the scandal has given the press ''a renewed sense of purpose.''

But why this and not the visits of Netanyahu and Arafat? Why this and not the arrest of ''the Serbian Adolf''? Why this and not the story on U.S. visa policies based on ethnicity and looks? Why this and not the unpacking, indeed the slow draining, of the courts? Why do we allow visiting heads of state to be crushed to the side while enquiring minds press to know more about what I have come to think of, ever since Anita Hill, as The Exorcist factor?

It is too easy to dismiss what is going on as just the media trying to sell a product. It is a disgrace and an embarrassment that Matt Drudge and Howard Stern have become the new role models of the free world's free press. Yes, they should have their say, but there can be no better moment to appeal--repeatedly--to the political function of real and reliable information from a viable free press in a democracy that hopes to continue functioning as such.

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