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THE PLAIN JANE OF POLITICS DEFIES THE TV MIND-SET

They call her Sasquatch. And a lesbian. And those are some of the kinder Janet Reno jokes that are constant on late-night television.

To paraphrase Deep Throat in "All the President's Men," follow the jokes. If you want to know where the major anxieties of the age are, just look to see where the jokes are flying.

Jokes always gravitate toward power. And public position. And unconventionality. And, at their very root, the human weaknesses we all share whether we care to admit it or not. If you want to know the truth, listen to as many jokes as possible and then track them back to our infinite capacity for fallibility.

It isn't hard to understand why comics, especially male, can't shut up about Janet Reno. History has placed the fate of the Clinton presidency right in her lap. Right next to it is Al Gore's viability as a candidate in 2000.

Clinton can't fire her, because the minute he does, he turns into Richard Nixon and she turns into Archibald Cox and Clinton would rather make a funeral pyre of his original Joni Mitchell LPs.

So she's the one who has to decide whether or not to appoint special prosecutors to investigate the money vacuuming of the Clinton campaign. Just when she had announced to the world that Clinton's White House "coffees" were probably kosher comes the news that videotapes exist of 44 Clinton coffees at the White House. That's the equivalent of a couple years or more of your favorite TV series recorded with muffled sound, bad lighting and lousy direction. And a large team of Justice Department types is going to have to comb through every second of it to catch every stray word and hand gesture.

The woman who, once again, has the First Saxophonist's fate in her hands looks like no other woman in current public life. She is large and of a somatic type that doesn't lend itself to glamorization or, for that matter, power-suited briskness. She arranges herself publicly to look neat and clean, but that's about all she does in the way of making obeisances to male eyes.

Combine that sort of raw power and independence with a lack of interest in the ancient cosmetic rituals, and you have a woman who awakens some of the deeper anxieties of insecure men. It's no wonder that all over late-night TV, they can't get the jokes out fast enough.

She is a living, breathing challenge to every stupid notion about men and women that we have allowed a half-century of television to institute in our lives.

What we have in post-Watergate America is Trial by Ridicule. Those who withstand it are as tough as it gets. They're the valedictorians of America's Friederich Nietzsche High School. (What doesn't kill me makes me stronger, he's said to have said -- an old favorite of Conan the Barbarian.)

There's no question that the attorney general let herself in for some of this herself. When the smoke cleared from Waco, it was apparent that part of the justification for wiping out the Branch Davidians was a fear of child abuse there. It may have been justified but may also have been part of the modern hysteria about the subject. (It fuels countless novels and TV shows every year, another clear-cut indication of anxiety over something people are terrified they're doing badly.)

Out of just that much ambiguity in her decision to raze David Koresh and friends, there was enough room for a fury of revolt that resulted, among other things, in the bombing in Oklahoma City.

On a different front, her simplistic assaults on the entertainment industry virtually guaranteed a comedic counterforce. The flood tide of vulgarity and mediocrity that Hollywood has loosed upon America is a horror, but the people least equipped to dam it up are people in government. The minute you bring laws anywhere near the marketplace of taste, you're in the censorship business, which is not a good business to be in, in a democracy.

"Family values" has become the battle cry of the censorious. As both a son and a father, I discovered that the only family values that really meant anything were truth and love and kindness. Kids know when they're being abused or lied to or patronized. (They sometimes imagine they are when they aren't, but then, that's what makes them kids.) Anything that diminishes them -- their knowledge or ability to learn how to choose wisely -- will only, in the long run, leave them diminished.

When Big Sister is watching, is it any wonder, then, that many people would rather she weren't?

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