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ONE POSITIVE EFFECT MAY COME FROM CLINTON AFFAIR

If President Clinton survives the Monica crisis, he probably will have Chris Matthews, Bill O'Reilly, Larry King, Tim Russert, George Will, Geraldo Rivera and scores of other commentators to thank.

The popular critical opinion is that all the above have used the crisis to their own ratings end and have damaged the president.

But to the contrary, the endless discussion of the president's behavior over the past seven months by the talk show participants appears to have helped him by making the nation numb.

I arrived at this conclusion in the days after the president's speech a week ago Monday.

It was not the president's best television moment. He appeared to be in such a rush to get it over with that what could have been a brief six-minute speech took him only four minutes to deliver.

Polls suggested that most of the nation felt sympathetic to Clinton before the speech, which he delivered with a noticeable lack of emotion even when talking about his wife and daughter.

If you wanted confirmation of how weak the speech was by Clinton standards, you just had to listen to Clinton's loudest supporter, James Carville, Sunday on "Meet the Press." Carville said that Clinton delivered the speech when he was tired, which went against the No. 1 rule about giving important speeches.

CNN's wise media expert, Jeff Greenfield, suggested on speech night that the success of the so-called apology really wouldn't be known for more than a week.

We're there now. Though polls suggest that the president's favorable ratings have slipped and a majority believe he should be censored, his job approval numbers are steady and he has been given a boost by his decisive action against terrorists even if it prompted comparisons to the movie, "Wag the Dog."

Patricia Ireland, the president of the National Organization for Women, wisely suggested Sunday on "Meet the Press" that the wide gulf between pundits and the public over the president's behavior persists.

In other words, Chris Matthews can play hardball every night on CNBC, William Bennett can be outraged about what this all means to American values on "Meet the Press" as he did Sunday and Ted Koppel can devote an entire "Nightline" to how disillusioned the Clinton cabinet has become as he did in a damning program last week.

But the great majority of the public has stopped listening and wishes it would all go away.

Some of the pundits have recently suggested that President Clinton could have avoided all the national trauma by admitting everything seven months ago.

However, a case can be made that the president needed the entire thing to drag on for seven months because the longer it dragged on the less outrageous his relationship with a young intern seemed to be and the less people cared.

Even with the nation's legendary short attention span, the majority of Americans' seeming indifference to Clinton's consistent behavior is slightly shocking.

When some of the things that conservatives like Bennett, Bay Buchanan and Jerry Falwell say start making sense to Clinton voters, you'd think that he'd be in more trouble than he is.

But there have been clues in the media for some time that the nation isn't as conservative as it was only a few years ago.

The success of "South Park" on Comedy Central, the signing of Howard Stern by CBS (which will be discussed in a later column) and the summer box office success of "Something About Mary" are symptoms of some kind of shift in taste and values. The shift is partially due to cable television, which has given a democratic voice to television that has resulted in lowered standards.

There also were clues on the local news on the night of the so-called Clinton apology that we no longer naively expect our presidents to tell the truth. And that simple truth might not necessarily be a bad lesson for our children, either. Perhaps it is better they learn now to be cynical about political leaders than wait until they are of voting age.

In on-the-street interviews done by local TV news, the majority of men and women said they wished the Monica Lewinsky matter would all go away. By the next day, the story wasn't even leading the local newscasts. That suggests that consultants have told Buffalo affiliates that this crisis is a ratings killer everywhere but on the political talk shows.

The amazing thing about the president's admission that he misled people in the Lewinsky matter is how easily Americans have accepted the idea that Hillary Clinton only learned the entire truth a few days before the nation.

That's tough for a cynic to buy. And if it is true, it is only true because she wanted plausible deniability and didn't want to know the truth.

The president's suggestion in his television address that what he said in an earlier legal deposition was "legally accurate" could just be a way for his lawyers to see if the stained dress story was going to confirm anything or if prosecutors were using it as a bluff.

As luck would have it, President Clinton may even be benefiting from the timing of an HBO movie, "The Rat Pack." The film about Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. focuses on Sinatra's influence in getting President Kennedy elected.

The movie suggests that Sinatra and his mob pals were decisive in getting Kennedy elected and introducing him to Judith Exner. She's the one-time JFK mistress who also was involved with a mobster.

President Kennedy's infidelities are pointedly brought out, with Sinatra suggesting in the film that JFK loved women "two at a time."

The timing of the film is a reminder that President Clinton isn't the only president to have had an overactive sex life.

He's just the one who had the misfortune of being caught when the media was redefining itself, with gossip passing as news.

When this crisis started, I floated the minority view that it could be the best thing to happen to presidential politics. My theory was that if the public decided that President Clinton's sex life was irrelevant to his office, then the past sex lives of future, qualified candidates would no longer be an issue in future elections.

Admittedly, this runs counter to the view that sex and character will be the only issues covered by TV in future campaigns.

And President Clinton is a long way from surviving this crisis. If the eventual report from special prosecutor Kenneth Starr includes massive misbehavior beyond sex, all bets are off.

But as of right now, the man who has been dubbed Billy Liar by elements of the media may unwittingly have one positive effect on the presidency to go along with all the negative effects.

If he survives this mess, his legacy may include taking sex off the brain of the American media during future presidential campaigns.