Magazine article The Spectator

The Rude Truth

Magazine article The Spectator

The Rude Truth

Article excerpt

THE OTHER day, Senator John McCain stood up to address a Republican fundraising meeting. `You think that was a tasteless joke?' he began, referring to the previous speaker's Viagra gag. `Listen to this one.' He then unburdened himself of the following jest: `Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because her real father's Janet Reno.'

Ker-ching. But the real punchline came in the deafening silence of the American media: like a genteel dowager on the Tube trying to avoid catching the eye of the gibbering derelict with Tourette's syndrome, the press decided not to notice. On the surface, this seems odd. After all, if there's a constant refrain in American political coverage, it's a lament for the loss of civility in public life. When Senator McCain's Republican colleague, Dan Burton, called the President a 'scumbag', the Incivility Police jumped all over him before concluding that his political credibility was damaged beyond repair; when House Majority Leader Dick Armey offered the milder observation that Mr Clinton was a 'shameful person' whose credo was 'I will do whatever I can get away with', the commentators tut-tutted that the Republican leadership had descended into the gutter but that the faux pas had rebounded on the hapless Armey. Some noted that this was the same fellow who had 'accidentally' referred to the gay Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank as 'Barney Fag'.

By contrast, Senator McCain at a public meeting impugned not the President himself but the three women (officially) closest to him: he said the kid was ugly, the Attorney-General mannish and, by implication, that the First Lady had those kinky lesbian tastes recently ascribed to her by former Clinton adviser Dick Morris. Personally, I find Chelsea rather fetching in a coltish sort of way. But even if you don't I think we can all agree that there are jokes galore to be made about the Clinton presidency without dragging his poor daughter into it. Yet what did the Incivility Police do? They looked at their shoes.

Had any other Republican ventured such a quip in public - Newt Gingrich, say, or Jesse Helms or Bob Dornan - the press would be baying for blood; had the nearly centenarian Senator Thurmond made the crack, there'd be editorials calling for compulsory euthanasia. Even Don Imus, a New York radio jock, is held to a higher standard: last year, the network news shows attacked him for playing a song parody that went, `That's Why The First Lady Is a Tramp.' Yet today Senator McCain is just about the only prominent Republican not being chastised for the cardinal sin of 'incivility'. Instead, he's the media's most revered Republican this side of Colin Powell, routinely hailed for his courage, idealism, dignity, integrity, nobility, not to mention his willingness a few weeks back to cook up an anti-tobacco bill even crazier than the one the Democrats were proposing.

For the last month, as confirmation of his saintly status, the big tobacco companies' ads have been demonising him by name. The media have spent months telling the public that Senator McCain is that rare thing, a Republican who cares' about America's children, and they're not about to change the script now. `It's like a return to the Kennedy era,' one magazine editor said. `He makes a gaffe, and we look the other way.'

Magnify last week's incident a thousandfold and that's why Bill Clinton's still in office. By comparison with their British counterparts, the American media are ponderously genteel, but they're also instinctively protective of their enemies' enemies: Senator McCain's is Big Tobacco, President Clinton's are the anti-abortionists, the homophobes, the environmentally challenged, all the bogeymen du jour. So, whatever reservations they might have about the Senator's funny bone or the President's funny boners, these boys will still always look better than the alternative. It was no surprise, then, that back in January, a mere four days after the Monica storm blew up, National Public Radio's flagship news magazine, All Things Considered, opened with its anguished announcer wondering if we shouldn't be `putting the brakes on the rush to judgment. …

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