Devil in the Details


It's beginning to seem as though Watergate's greatest legacy was a handy shorthand by which pundits and politicians can criminalize their opponents with the twist of a suffix. Beginning with Koreagate in 1976, when a South Korean rice dealer was investigated and eventually arrested for being too generous to certain members of Congress, the media gave us Billygate, in which Jimmy Carter's brother was said to represent Libya; Debate gate, wherein Carter's debate briefing books mysteriously turned up in the hands of Ronald Reagan's campaign staff; Peanutgate/ Goo bergate, in which peanut-farm money of questionable origin ended up in Carter's campaign coffers; and Lancegate, concerning the shady banking deals of President Carter's budget director, Bert Lance. With Ronald Reagan came Contragate, or Irangate, perhaps the only post-Nixon scandal to be worthy of the suffix, followed by George Bush's Iraqgate and Passportgate, in which President Bush had the State Department search for Bill Clinton's passport records during the 1992 campaign to prove he was a draft dodger.

By the time Clinton took office, gatemania—the need to attach the suffix to any potential question of impropriety relating to anyone involved with the executive branch—was standard journalistic practice. When two nominees for U.S. attorney general were each found to have failed to navigate the labyrinthine tax laws concerning noncitizen domestic help, we got Nannygate, followed in subsequent years by Filegate, Travel gate, Whitewatergate, Chinagate, and Coffeegate. Clinton's libido spawned a whole genre of -gates: Paulagate, also known as Zip pergate or Troopergate; Gen nifergate; the Lewinsky affair, variously -gated as Fornigate, Sexgate, Kathygate, Bimbogate, Tailgate, and, from the Times of London, Interngate, which sounds like a computer company, and Oralgate, which sounds like a dental dam.

But it is conservative columnists who have proved most enamored of gate-ism. The Wall Street Journal is in the habit of employing strings of Paulagates, Travelgates, and Filegates on its editorial page—like when they vehemently protested, as Democratic payback, a 1996 House investigation into Newt Gingrich's own minor ethical misdoings. Some conservative pundits have taken to -gating even the nonscandalous in an effort to lend political setbacks an aura of impropriety. Wash ington Times columnist Wesley Pruden indicted Hillary Clinton in Health gate, apparently in reference to the First Lady's failure to get her national health care proposal past congressional Repub licans; syndicated columnist Linda Bowles termed the President's attempt to end the military's ban on homosexuals Gaygate. (Bowles also included Irangate in her list of Clintonian malfeasance; apparently Clinton's corrupt tendrils reach back to the Reagan presidency.)

Heck, why bother actually making an argument? Gatemania speaks for itself. For instance, legal writer Stuart Taylor, Jr., began a 1996 article by invoking not just Taiwangate, Koreagate (the sequel), Cisnerosgate, and Espy gate, but also the tongue-twisting Buddhist-Temple-Goregate and Indonesia-Lippo-Riady-Huang Hub bellgate. And to the standard litany of Travelgate, Troopergate, Whitewatergate, Paulagate, and Gennifergate, witticism-challenged Washington Times columnist Ralph Reiland added Co cainegate, Dodgergate, Toe gate, Fostergate, Cattlegate, Sallygate—we're not even sure what some of these are—and Haircutgate.

What purpose does gatemania serve? First, it adds up to a stealth rehabilitation of Richard Nixon. By implicitly comparing to Water gate everything from expensive haircuts to draft dodging, conservative pundits dilute the significance of the original and revise the historical record until Nixon becomes just one of many presidents who faced serious ethical questions. Second, the right-wing elite—from vitriolic pundits like Reiland to more creditable and astute commentators like Taylor—hate Bill Clinton with a passion. They're livid that Clinton's approval rating is inexplicably stuck above 50 percent, and that people remain indifferent to his deceptions. Hyperbolic -gating, then, is meant to provoke public outrage where little has yet surfaced. It's a kindergarten tactic with which we're all familiar: repeat something often enough and eventually it becomes true. But by constantly lending Watergate's republic-shaking imprimatur to incidents as insignificant as a haircut on Air Force One, conservatives trivialize the gravity of Watergate and, over time, inure the American public to real scandal. Which is, of course, the real scandal. If the mainstream media ever figures this out, watch the headlines for Scandal gate.

—Nicholas Confessore


Re-Running Amok

Journalistic shorthands like "Watergate" either win mass acceptance or they don't. In 1987, our friends at the New Republic ran a reader contest to name the Iran-Contra scandal. They were thrilled to come up with Iranamok, sent in by Anne Doyle Davis of Lanse, Michigan. This was very funny—once. TNR writers, however, used the neologism no fewer than 215 times between January 5, 1987, and January 27, 1992. One TRB column, of April 11, 1988, actually used the word six times. Alas, despite TNR's heroic efforts, other journals did not pick it up.

Not to be daunted, TNR has lately come up with another catchy word, Bimb roglio, to describe the Clinton/ Starr/ Lewinsky business. Again, very funny—once. But at this writing, Bimbroglio has appeared in TNR 35 times. Like Iranamok, Bim broglio seems in no danger of passing into the language. We await TNR's next coinage.

—R. K.

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No Good News Is News

Right-wing "family" organizations have long claimed that teaching adolescent students about sex in health classes and handing out condoms to those who want them turns teenagers into hyperpromiscuous sex fiends. Most recently, in announcing a September report by the Family Research Council, FRC analyst Gracie Hsu argued that "children are taught that sex before marriage is a good thing," and that "distribution of birth control devices without parental knowledge or consent is encouraging them to become sexually active."

Wrong on both counts. A report issued that same month by the Centers for Disease Control (apparently unread by the good folks at the FRC) found that between 1991 and 1997, the percentage of teenagers engaging in sex declined by a striking 11 percent, leaving abstainers in the majority. Condom use has also gone up 10 percent, contributing to significant decreases in the incidences of teen pregnancy and gonorrhea. The CDC attributes the declines to the "dual approach of delaying first intercourse among adolescents and increasing condom use among those who are sexually active." It's very simple: if you thoroughly educate adolescents about the potential dangers of sexual activity and teach those who choose to have sex how to do so safely, they will make responsible decisions—which, contrary to right-wing bluster, is exactly what groups like the National Education Association and Planned Parent hood have been saying all along.

—N. C.

Marxists and Feminists First

In case you thought that the only things wrong with the movie Titanic were a soppy script and an annoying soundtrack, the forces of right have organized to alert us to greater evils lurking at sea. The Christian Boys' and Men's Titanic Society is "devoted to portraying the story of the Titanic as it really happened." This most obviously includes correcting director James Cam eron's "neo-Marxist" interpretation of the statistics (94 percent of first-class women and children survived, compared to 47 percent of steerage-class women and children), explaining that this imbalance was purely logistical: the steerage passengers were further away from the deck, and it was harder to alert them that the ship was going down. The organization also "stands for the proposition that the strong must sacrifice for the weak," glorifying the sacrifices of the men who gave up their lives for women. Finally, they oppose the movie's subversive promotion of youthful rebellion and teen sex—never mind that Rose stood by her man.

For only $20, you can join the society in its celebration of male virtue and "the law of the sea"—which is also, of course, "the law of human nature." The membership fee gets you invitations to annual father/son dinners, discounts on the society's merchandise, and an annual newsletter "designed to explore the moral issues raised by the Titanic catastrophe—from a strictly Christian perspective."

—Tara Zahra

Close Your Eyes and Think of Texas

Speaking of moral issues, faculty members at the South western Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, will be expected to sign a new, improved statement of church doctrine. The added clause requires wives to "submit" to the authority of their husbands. Refusal to sign the statement, which claims that a wife "is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband" and "has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation," is grounds for termination. Accord ing to the Chronicle of Higher Education, many of the institution's 90 full-time faculty members have already signed the updated statement.

—T. Z.


True Diversity

For years, conservatives on our nation's college campuses have battled the onslaught of "diversity" in curriculum, faculty, and admissions selections. A University of Pennsylvania right-wing newspaper defines diversity as "Penn's way of sticking it to 'The Man.'" But now conservative students at many of the nation's universities seem to have adopted the mantra "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." A sampling of conservative student publications reveals that these students are actively portraying themselves as the real "victimized minority" on college campuses today. True diversity, they claim, has nothing to do with the traditional categories of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.

An editorial in the Claremont Independent of Claremont College decries the overrepresentation of registered Democrats in the institution's faculty: "Many in the academy incessantly cry into the wind their frustration at the lack of diversity. What about obstructing others from participating in the academy who do not share a political view, but have legitimate ideas none theless." Simil arly, the Boston College Observer argued that the arrival of a conservative speaker on campus was "an important step in fostering true diversity at BC instead of the superficial diversity which currently permeates campus life." An editorial in the Dartmouth Beacon concurs, arguing that "diversity is not satisfied merely by having minority and female deans." The lack of registered Republicans in the Dart mouth administration reveals that "the upper echelons of the college fail to achieve anything approaching diversity." Maybe proponents of affirmative action can broaden its appeal by applying it to blacks, Latinos, and conservative Re publicans.

—T. Z.


Who Counts at Census?

We read frequently about downsizing and layoffs, but the Census Bureau tells a different story. Surprisingly, it reports that in the 1990s people are staying in jobs for a longer time, and it concludes that jobs are more secure than before. Since unexpected findings make methodologists of us all, I looked at how the Census Bureau came to such startling conclusions. The Census asks currently employed people how long they have been with their present employer. Lo and behold, respondents report that they've been in their current job for a long time. In other words, the census is asking job survivors about their length of service. But those who have been terminated are not in the calculation; if you're no longer with the employer, you're not counted. Since escalating layoffs leave a pool of survivors with greater seniority, the Census method gets the story just about backward.

Though the Census Bureau continues to report job security improvements by this wounded measure, it does acknowledge a slight fault. The bureau demonstrates this by pointing to the example of the mining indus try. Employment in this sector dropped by 300,000 between 1983 and 1990, yet median tenure (years with current employer) almost doubled, increasing from 3.4 years to 6.1 years. The more people are laid off, the more secure the jobs are! Maybe a better measure of job tenure would be to study how many of those who were working in a given establishment at the beginning of the year were still there at the end.

Statistical insensitivity to reality is widespread. One prominent economist asks his ace econometrics students if they believe the results that their intricate calculations produce. They are con founded by this question and have great difficulty in responding. But, of course, blinders are not a good way to understand what is going on. As my mother would say, Do you have to go to college to not know that?

—S. M. Miller