Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Off With Her Mike

Again with the Lewinsky question to Chelsea. How has her mother's credibility been affected by the Lewinsky scandal?

If we look closely at this question, we can see that it's become divorced from the avowed original reason for asking it and now exists disembodied, like the Cheshire Cat's smile, or perhaps the other end of the Cheshire Cat. Because she's refused to answer it, Chelsea can expect it to materialize wherever she goes in public now.

Assuming for the moment the best of original questioner Evan Strange, he wanted to help. He says he wanted to give Chelsea a chance to expound on her mother's strength and resilience. Even under the best of circumstances, then, he wasn't asking because he didn't know, and wanted to know the answer; he wished to draw out what he thought he knew. One reason why the question was a non-question.

Another reason it was a non-question: we already know the answer. We know that Hillary's sticking by Bill annoyed people disposed to be annoyed by Hillary and Bill, and pleased people disposed to support her and Bill. How many people changed their minds about Hillary? Why would Chelsea, 17 when the scandal broke, have special insight into how the public perceived her mother? Unless she had a polling firm of her own, she wouldn't. She would only have special insight into her own feelings. Feelings which anybody with more than two brain cells could surmise.

So it's not a question Chelsea is better able to answer than anyone else. Quite the opposite; it's safe to suppose that mentioning the name "Lewinsky" is painful to Chelsea, and that she doesn't have a better answer to the question than any of the talking heads who are more than happy to expound on it, a decade after the fact.

But here we run into the well-nourished constant resentment against her parents: how dare those arrogant Clintons? Now the resentment is splashing over onto Chelsea. She's no longer a child, her detractors say. If she's choosing to campaign for her mother, she should be ready to answer for her mother. And her mother should answer for her husband. And the husband should answer for the the trauma the nation went through when he was impeached, a matter of public record. Therefore, Chelsea is refusing to talk about a matter of public record.

There are weak links in this chain, chief among them the notion that Hillary and Chelsea should have to justify their decision to stick by Bill. No. They were the innocent, injured parties. They did nothing wrong. He caused them greater trauma than he did any member of the public. Whether they forgave him does not affect the public.

Another weak link is the notion that Bill Clinton dragged the public through the trauma and expense of impeachment, so the public has the right to ask him and his family about it, forever. This link is broken, too. It wasn't Bill's idea to be impeached; it was the Republicans' pet project, even though they knew the impeachment would be unsuccessful because the votes weren't there. Any time a group knowingly puts on a show at public expense, the onus should be laid on them.

Another illogical assertion is that because she is now an adult, having chosen to campaign for her mother, Chelsea should have to talk about every aspect of her parents' life, infidelity included. Has any other son or daughter of a politician been held to such a standard? Are the press and public going to hound the Spitzer children if their mother runs for office? Perhaps so. Perhaps this new low will endure. Actually, of course it will! New lows always endure!

But the question has now been transmuted into Chelsea-as-a-Clinton denying the Public's Right to Know. That means that she can be asked the question, over and over, and the questioners can consider themselves heroic for confronting her about her refusal to satisfy the Public's Right. At the same time, they get the secret, mean little thrill that comes when an obscure person makes a famous one flinch. And nourish their own sense of injury when she tells them off.

And get themselves on T.V. Guaranteed. The only problem now is how to get to the mike and ask the question before someone else grabs the glory.

Finally, to get back to the question itself, it isn't a question of any substance; it's the sort of nebulous question 24 hour cable news networks need to chew over during the long winter evenings. The phraseology is pure News Network drivel: is so-and-so's credibility affected? What does that mean, exactly? It doesn't exactly mean anything. It's a stew of "do they trust him/her? Are the 24/7 chattering classes going to be able to milk this? Will he/she make a speech or do some sort of televiseable damage control?"

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