Richard Reeves

Politics and All That Jazz

WASHINGTON -- My first reaction to America's latest episode of "Survivor," with Linda Chavez being voted off this island as Zoe Baird was eight years ago, was that Democrats pay their household help a lot better than Republicans do. To hear "Miss Linda" tell it, she did not pay at all; letting someone wash her dishes and drive around her kids was an act of charity.

Still, Chavez probably got a bum rap, as Baird did before her. She is less a victim of the politics of personal destruction than of politics as mass entertainment. With no more chads to chase when "The Florida Story" ended, politics and governance needed a new star and story line to compete in prime time. Chavez, who came to public attention bashing Baird on television, knows all about this. Witness her withdrawal as a nominee for secretary of labor, in which she cast her problems as "It's a Small World After All."

Television, which is not so much a medium as it is an environment, demands that stories be up-close and personal. It's a small screen after all, and everybody is the same size on it. But some are better at it than others -- say, Bill Clinton rather than Al Gore.

The best example of that right now is "The Clinton Years," the combined effort of ABC News and PBS, showing all this week on "Nightline" and again in somewhat different form on "Frontline" on Jan. 16. The Clinton shows, like Ken Burns' current "Jazz," are built around the essential elements of nonfiction electronic showmanship: (1) old film, (2) engaging talking heads and (3) a simple story line.

"The Clinton Years," which is pretty good documentary television, obviously has the film, some of it resurrecting people better forgotten -- Gennifer Flowers, for example. It has practiced talking heads such as George Stephanopoulos, David Gergen, James Carville, Dee Dee Myers, Dick Morris and Paul Begala, all demonstrating why they practically have their own channels these days. And it comes up with this story line: Hillary Clinton -- or the tortured relationship between husband and wife -- inevitably destroyed the Clinton presidency.

In our time, such television professionals as those determine the story lines of what we in journalism like to call "the first rough draft of history." It happens that several of the pros on "The Clinton Years" -- particularly Stephanopoulos of ABC, Gergen of PBS, Morris of Fox and Myers of "The West Wing" -- are certified Hillary-haters. Not without reason, I must add.

Non-professionals, including former treasury secretary Robert Rubin and former national security adviser Sandy Berger, have more complicated and substantive stories but not the same telling skills. So, inevitably, the substance and governance of the Clinton years fades away as the talking heads tell their stories all in a line pointing toward the fearsome lady upstairs.

The pros, led by Gergen, emphasize the two disasters that defined the pre-Monica presidency: Mrs. Clinton's secretive stewardship of national health care, which led to the election of a combative Republican Congress, which then impeached her husband; and her determination to stonewall the press, the Congress and the Justice Department on matters relating to Whitewater and what should have been a couple of other small-time family embarrassments.

In "The Clinton Years," former secretary of labor Robert Reich, the non-professional best at both substance and anecdote, tells the story of a helpless administration trying to sell health care without knowing what the plan was -- "We only heard rumors" -- because only Mrs. Clinton knew what it was, and the president was afraid to ask her about it.

On Whitewater, Travelgate and the rest, Stephanopoulos and Gergen say they urged the president to tell all, giving the press whatever it wanted -- and then suffer their slings and arrows for a few days until something else diverted the nation's television-watching attention. Clinton agreed, saying, "Now you've got to talk to my wife. You got to persuade her ..." Then says Gergen: "I started calling for an appointment. I never got it. ... She had a veto power. ... There was a co-presidency."

Maybe, maybe not. But that's television's story and they are going to stick to it. Now, with Chavez gone, we will find out if President-elect Bush's nominee for attorney general, John Ashcroft, has an interesting enough story to destroy himself on television.

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