The dance is called The Press Limbo.
And the question is: How low can we go?
How low will the press sink in covering this presidential election?
Will we print allegations?
Will we print rumors?
Will we print allegations of rumors or rumors of allegations?
Yeah. Why the heck not?
It is like wiggling your toes in the mud of a riverbank.
You know you shouldn't do it. (It gets you all dirty.) But it feels too good to stop.
Sex is always a good story. And so is the presidency.
And if we could just find a way to combine the two . . .
Hey, how about this story in the New York Post?
The Post prints a story accusing George Bush of having had sewith Jennifer Fitzgerald, an aide, in Switzerland in 1984.
The front-page headline says in huge type: "THE BUSH AFFAIR."
The inside headline says: "NEW BOOK: BUSH HAD SWISTRYST."
But it is only after slogging through the story that you find outhat:
* The accusation appears only in a footnote in the book.
* The source of the accusation is dead.
* The source talked not to the author of the book but to the author's husband.
* The author's husband says he offered the story to CNN in 1986, but CNN was not interested.
* The author's husband says today: "I don't know if George Bush had an affair with Jennifer Fitzgerald."
* And all the dead guy allegedly said was that he had arranged "adjoining bedrooms" for Bush and Fitzgerald at a chateau.
Yet this is enough for a CNN reporter to ask Bush in a live press conference yesterday:
"There is an extensive series of reports in today's New York Post alleging that a former U.S. ambassador, a man now deceased, had told several persons that he arranged for a sexual tryst involving you and one of your female staffers in Geneva in 1984."
Well, not quite.
There is no "extensive series of reports" in the Post. There is only the one report based on a footnote in a book.
The dead ambassador did not tell "several persons." He allegedly told the author's husband. He allegedly told a second guy, but a third person the Post quotes says the dead guy "did not discuss 'adjoining bedrooms' " with him.
Nor is the allegation that Bush had an affair with this woman news: On April 6, when Hillary Clinton raised similar allegations of a Bush love affair, I wrote a column detailing the long history of the rumor.
But I also printed that there was no substantiation for the rumor and no participant had ever come forward to claim that Bush had an affair with her.
Bush was forced to deny yesterday (in front of his wife and the prime minister of Israel) that he had a tryst with Fitzgerald.
But his denial does not matter much. In the public mind, Bush is now exactly like Clinton: Both have been accused of fooling around.
Actually, however, the accusations are quite different. In thcase of Clinton, a woman came forward saying she had an 11-year affair with Clinton and she provided audiotapes.
In the case of Bush we have a secondhand account from a dead guy who could not possibly have known what happened, if anything, in either of those "adjoining" rooms.
So this story really tells us far more about the press than it tellus about George Bush.
For the last few days, the press has been beating up on a Bush aide because she dared mention how Clinton has had to fight off "bimbo eruptions" throughout his campaign.
The Bush aide was soundly denounced in the press as a sleaze monger.
But how clean does the press look today?
A tabloid that specializes in scandal prints an unconfirmable accusation from a corpse and that is enough to set the rest of us in motion.
And the rest of us don't have to justify what we are doing. We can merely say: "Hey, it was on TV. We've got to write about it."
So back to my original question:
How low can we go?
As low as we want.
Because who's to stop us?