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BILL CLINTON'S SAGA IS ONLY THE BEGINNING

I really do blame the media. I came to that dismal conclusion last week. We all know Bill Clinton is, among many other things, a reckless and foolish man. He virtually said so himself Monday evening so no one has to say it for him anymore. He also said he was a dissembler ("I misled people, even my wife") but then I never voted for him -- or any other president -- because I thought he would go around telling the truth all the time. We have journalists, artists and madmen to do that.

We vote for presidents, not prophets. We hope they are the sort of people who will always know the important truth and will always use it judiciously on our behalf (a test that both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were widely known to fail regularly).

It is the godforsaken wall-to-wall media babble of it that stuns and horrifies me. If you wanted to last Sunday, you could watch pre-speech commentary and analysis from dawn to bedtime -- including a three-hour CNN "Town Meeting" conducted by Jeff Greenfield (who would be back in the global village business Tuesday and Thursday).

But it was Monday's pre-speech docket of blabber, balderdash and political food-fighting that disgusted me and seemed to me, quite literally, the most horrific thing I've seen on television since the Kennedy assassination.

I flipped from CNN to CNBC to the Fox News Channel. Then, after Clinton's mea culpa, I added NBC and CBS to my channel surfride. Lawyers, congressmen, journalists, talk jockeys and pols of all shapes, sizes, colors and flavors by the hundreds seemed to come out of the woodwork to celebrate or mourn or gloat or mope or just blather on and on about Clinton's T-Day (T for Testimony) and his mea culpa afterward.

In the face of all the sententious, self-righteous, orotund blather, Clinton's four-minute speech was, by virtue of its brevity, an even sharper and smarter criticism of the media than his actual words were a criticism of our current Puritan-in-Chief Kenneth Starr.

By that time, I'm sure I wasn't the only one saying, "My God, the words, words, words which are being turned into garbage over this Lewinsky mess." That's the point -- all the words, words, words are going to be there from now on. No president can now avoid them; maybe no future president can survive them. America has changed.

We can, if we want, draw cozy parallels between Clinton and Andrew Jackson (who was considered a bumpkin and whose administration had silly scandals and who wound up being censured -- pointlessly -- by Congress). It's to no avail. We are living in an age of near-total scrutiny and no politician -- or journalist or janitor or beekeeper -- could survive it all.

Theorists and thinkers have been telling us this for more than 40 years. Jacques Ellul told us that all new technology recreates the culture from which it springs (usually soullessly). Marshall McLuhan told us the way it would work with communications media. As media become more globally instantaneous, more and more information is "declassified." In other words, more and more information that was considered out of bounds is now considered inbounds.

That, said McLuhan, is the downside of the Global Village. Everybody not only knows everybody else's business but thinks they're entitled to besides. While all that is going on, his stern but hair-raisingly clairvoyant disciple Neil Postman has been telling us for decades that we're "amusing ourselves to death," that the creation of the National Entertainment State is swallowing all values.

A little while after CNN first hit the air, I worried in this space about what would happen when the amount of real news simply wasn't sufficient for the space to cover it. Now there are three 24-hour-a-day competing news channels (CNN, MSNBC and Fox News) and, in media, competition is almost always a guarantor of falling standards. Add to those the Internet, which disgorges megatons of information instantly with no regard whatsoever for truth or probity and stands ready, at a moment's notice, to pick up the tiniest microbe of scandal about any recognizable name.

Remember all this started with a conservative-bankrolled Paula Jones' lawsuit over supposed defamation in a conservative magazine a handful of people read. Out of that tiny microbe of information grew the raging plague that has consumed us and resulted in Bill Clinton answering "questions which no American citizen should ever have to answer." It's the price of his wearing the bozo nose while we're being "amused to death." With the new technology in place and the profit motive screaming, such indecency looks to become the rule.

Bill Clinton beseeched us at the end of his micro-confession to "repair the national discourse."

What if, as it seems, it's beyond repair? Here's a question no virtue-crat thought to ask in the TV horror show that was Washington Babble-On: What if we aren't good enough for him?