WITH my mother watching from her apartment in Cleveland, Bill Clinton leaned across the table on the "Donahue" stage on April 1 and said with a scowl that I was "the reason for the cynicism in America."
This followed my several questions about his alleged affair with Gennifer Flowers.
The exchange, uncomfortable enough, was made worse for me (and my mother) by what followed, a chorus of booing directed at me from the majority of my own audience.
Now that the Republican convention is over I can confess to a guilty relief at no longer being alone in this year's cynic-making spotlight. Mary Tillotson of CNN and Stone Phillips of NBC took a full frontal blast from President Bush for daring to ask him about rumors of an affair involving him.
While media-bashing is hardly a new idea (see Republican convention, 1952), it is now more focused, better planned and includes the modern art of lettered T-shirts ("Lynch the Liberal Media Elite"), an innovation not available to the Eisenhower Republicans who were forced to make their case in the dull age when people wore clothes that bore no writing.
The in-your-face lecturing of undecorous journalists works. The chill of an angry, dismissive arm wave from the president and the challenger is palpable.
The Republican war on interviewers has another swift sword that may be even more effective in the strategy to force reporters to sit down and shut up -- access to the star.
The Bush team's petulant blackballing in Houston of Dan Rather, whose sin of the past was to have asked, "Where was Vice President George Bush?" in connection with the Iran-contra affair, hardly puts a smile on the faces of the management team at CBS.
It exerts even more pressure on a media industry already insecure with corporate debt and battered with public-approval ratings as low as the president's himself.
The result is a press bus filled with anxious folk whose jobs are in the hands of powerful Media Bosses who dine in small groups at the White House. Like the candidates they cover, reporters are concerned about their own employment future and may have no interest in risking a well-televised, "Shame on you!"
We thus begin the general-election season with two presidential candidates who have successfully inoculated themselves against any "Gennifer" questions and are covered by a tentative press establishment caught between the responsibility to get the facts and the desire to be popular -- not only in the ratings and circulation, but in the offices of their CEOs. Drew Pearson, where are you?
The same citizens decrying press probing of a candidate's alleged monkey business are also telling pollsters that "character" is an important issue in this campaign year of "traditional family values."
While most Americans may not find a past indiscretion evidence of irredeemable corruption, joining the incumbent and challenger in scolding the press pushes an already tentative mainstream media away from information that might make a difference in some voters' choice of who should occupy the most important office in the world.
With inquiries about fidelity off-limits, the issue is left to the inside chatter at the press bar and exaggerated speculations at suburban cocktail parties.
Freezing the press in place on matters of sex cancels an informed debate on the "character" issue, promotes half-truths and rumormongering and ensures more "exclusives" for creative writers whose work appears in "newspapers" available to impulse buyers at supermarket checkout counters.
Phil Donahue is host of the talk show "Donahue."