The best Super Bowl in recent memory certainly has been overshadowed by television's coverage of the Super Bowl of Sleaze that has engulfed the Clinton presidency.

One of the low points came Friday when CNN's Bernard Shaw told the network's new analyst, Jeff Greenfield, that the one question he would ask the president is, "Did you have oral sex with Monica Lewinsky?"

Greenfield responded by saying that while that was an appropriate question, asking it of a sitting president was a serious journalist's worst nightmare.

The former ABC analyst added that if the president held a press conference, it would be the first one in history to be given an R rating.

After the past week, I feel a little foolish for naively suggesting that a television series like WB's "Dawson's Creek" is too racy for its intended teen-age audience because it features a high school sophomore having an affair with a teacher and includes suggestive dialogue about another teen-ager "walking his dog."

Perhaps the most salacious element of the "Crisis in the White House" -- as one network calls it -- is the implication that when the president claims oral sex isn't sex, the bible he's referring to is the screenplay of the movie "Clerks." Clinton's supposed remarks about oral sex sound awfully similar to the views of a female character in one of the funniest scenes in that low-budget film.

Of course, there isn't much funny about this case, even if Jay Leno thinks there is. President Clinton isn't Marv Albert. He's the leader of the free world, and the crisis has overshadowed not only the Super Bowl, but also coverage of meaningful issues such as what is happening in Iraq and the pope's visit to Cuba.

The president reportedly listened to his lawyers before deciding against any lengthy interviews before tonight's State of the Union address. Of course, these are the same lawyers who could have saved the nation most of this sordidness if they had persuaded the president to settle the Paula Jones case before he had to answer questions about his sex life.

A viewer of Sunday morning's political shows -- NBC's "Meet the Press" with Tim Russert and ABC's "This Week With Sam (Donaldson) and Cokie (Roberts)" -- couldn't help but think that the media must know far more than they are letting on about the accuracy of the allegations, or analysts like George Will and Bill Kristol wouldn't be calling the president a liar and predicting he'd be out of office by week's end.

The inability of ABC's George Stephanopoulos -- who used to be a key Clinton aide -- to say more than "I hope so" when asked if he thought the president was telling the truth may have been the most alarming comment of all for a Clinton loyalist.

In a telling appearance a few nights earlier, Stephanopoulos and another former White House aide working in television, Dee Dee Myers, sat side by side on ABC. They added little but that they hoped their former guy was truthful. Their cautious demeanor, however, made one wonder why there isn't a moratorium on hiring White House officials until their guy is out of office.

The coverage of the crisis illustrates much of what is bad about TV news in the late '90s -- its need to fill endless hours on cable even when very little information is available, and network news veering toward tabloid topics because it needs to make money.

But the coverage of the crisis also speaks to the media's state of mind about the president's continuing behavior. It's almost as if they were waiting for something like this to happen.

It may take months to determine if supposed scoops -- such as an allegedly stained dress worn by Ms. Lewinsky being taken into evidence and a supposed eyewitness to a Clinton-Lewinsky private moment -- are really scoops or just character assassinations.

But it certainly is clear that the media have stretched some of their rules to provide a forum for people with questionable motives. Last week, ABC's respected "Nightline" had as a guest a former college classmate of Ms. Lewinsky. He described himself as a good friend before telling Ted Koppel that he wouldn't put it past her to make up or exaggerate everything. His credibility was clearly undermined because he hadn't spoken with her in three years, a period of time in which she may have changed.

Then there was the classic television moment when CNN's Larry King asked that noted historian, Gennifer Flowers, to assess the effectiveness of the Clinton presidency.

Naturally, the extensive coverage brings back memories of, and similarities to, Watergate. But Watergate dealt with a burglary designed to help President Nixon get re-elected. This "Crisis in the White House" focuses on a president's sex drive and apparent need to be too much like his political idol, the late John F. Kennedy.

Of course, Watergate is considered one of the media's biggest triumphs. It remains to be seen whether this ugly crisis will enhance the media's reputation or explode in their face.

On cable's Fox News on Sunday, Roger Altman said if the allegations aren't true, "the media (are) going to look beyond foolish" because they have essentially convicted the president.

Of course, anything is possible, even that the president is telling the truth. After all, the Broncos just won the Super Bowl.

In a weird way, the resolution of this crisis could end up being beneficial for the nation. If President Clinton didn't have sex with Ms. Lewinsky, the media will be so embarrassed that they might consider re-evaluating their behavior.

If he had sex with her but public opinion allows Congress to avoid the whole mess, the media will realize that an explosive case like this one proves the public doesn't care about the sex lives of presidents and we'll never have to be distracted by that again.

The saddest thing is that the crisis robbed the pope of so much air time. Because it's clear that, after the Super Bowl of Sleaze, we all could use a little cleansing.

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