Washington -- What are you thinking as you read charges now by Arkansas police officers that they helped arrange extramarital sex affairs for Bill Clinton when he was governor?
If you're like some people with whom I deal, you're probably saying, "Slick Willie is guilty as hell!"
What runs through your mind as you hear lurid charges that Michael Jackson was no mere benefactor to thousands of children, but a pedophile who abused boys and paid the victims' parents big money to keep quiet about it?
If you're moving in a circle half as cynical as mine, you're hearing, "What did you expect from a strange boy-man who was always holding his private slumber parties with boys?" Or, "Jackson's behavior has been so queer that I wouldn't put anything past him!"
There are many sad implications in these stories, but none more worrisome than the evidence that the media are rapidly destroying whatever is left of the old American rule that any person must be presumed innocent until proved guilty.
Remember when the scandal broke over the Bank of Credit & Commerce International? Washington lawyer Clark Clifford, an American icon, and his partner, Robert Altman, were indicted on charges of conspiracy and bribery to facilitate BCCI crookedness. New York prosecutors and shadowy leakers in the Justice Department here laid out such horrible "details" of the case against Messrs. Altman and Clifford that almost all the media, the cocktail-sippers and the politicians found the two men guilty before trial.
Rarely did anyone ask me, "Do you think Clifford is guilty?" The questions generally was, "Why would a man with all the money he's got get involved in such stupid bribes?"
Mr. Altman was acquitted and the charges against Mr. Clifford were dropped -- but only after they and their families had suffered through humiliating rumors and costly defenses. Yes, only after most of us had stripped them of their presumption of innocence and made them pariahs.
Such a pity! But presumptions of innocence and basic commitments to fairness don't hold up long against sensational claims by Arkansas policemen-guards that they pimped for Governor Clinton, furnished cars in which he could glide secretly through the streets of Little Rock looking for female prey, and stood "watch" while women dallied with the governor on the front seat of his car.
Add this to charges that Mr. Clinton was involved in crooked business deals in Arkansas, and that White House aides, panicked by the suicide of the White House deputy counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr., searched Foster's office and removed files and a diary -- things of potentially great embarrassment for both Clintons. We wind up with a public-relations disaster for the president even though he has not been indicted or found guilty of any lawbreaking.
The Clintons are being "convicted" in the media in ways that are as shameful as the tactics being used against Michael Jackson. Our public is utterly titillated by stories that, as cavalierly as they would ask Michael for a fingerprint, Los Angeles cops want to strip-search Mr. Jackson to see if his physical characteristics match the description of a 13-year-old who says Michael abused him.
I have no idea whether the president or Mr. Jackson is innocent of the sordid charges they now face. I do have this old-fashioned idea that the media ought not convict them and hang them on the basis of charges by people who have been paid, or stand to get rich by leveling sensational accusations.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.