WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole has served in Congress for almost 35 years, but the impact on American society of Hollywood-produced violence and smut has been debated on Capitol Hill even longer. In 1954, Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver held the first congressional hearings on the impact of television violence while looking for the root causes of juvenile delinquency.
Nevertheless, when Mr. Dole, a Republican pursuing a 1996 White House bid, attacked the entertainment industry last week, he immediately made it a presidential campaign issue. In so doing, he helped elevate a question about acceptable standards for sex and violence in the mass media into a national discourse on what ought to be tolerated in a free society.
"This is a healthy debate and one we need to have," said Newton Minow, the former Federal Communications Commission chairman who condemned television in 1961 as a "vast wasteland."
"I think there is not a family in this country, Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, that is not concerned about this issue," Mr. Minow said.
In a speech delivered in Los Angeles, Mr. Dole bluntly took those who work in the entertainment industry to task for the increasingly violent and sexually explicit images that they sell.
Singling out Time Warner, a company that distributes many of the rawest movies and records, Mr. Dole said: "Is this what you intended to accomplish with your careers? Must you debase our nation and threaten our children for the sake of corporate profits?"
Initial reaction focused more on Mr. Dole's political ambitions.
On Friday, White House spokesman Mike McCurry, anticipating a question about Mr. Dole's remarks, ticked off a half-dozen times that the president has asked the entertainment industry to take more responsibility for what it produces. But President Clinton's chiding has been gentle and nothing like Mr. Dole's frontal assault Wednesday night.
Movie producer-director Oliver Stone, whose "Natural Born Killers" was mentioned by Mr. Dole as an example of a glorification of violence, accused the senator of engaging in "a '90s form of McCarthyism."
"Hollywood did not create violence in America," Mr. Stone said.
And Michael Medved, a film critic who agrees with Mr. Dole on movie violence, said, "I wish the senator had said this months ago. Now, inevitably, no matter how sincere you are, if you begin this conversation in the middle of a presidential campaign, people will ascribe partisan motives to you."
Facts on his side
Mr. Medved was proved right in a matter of hours by a torrent of criticism of Mr. Dole, but to those who have been active in this debate the longest, the most significant thing about the reaction was what Hollywood didn't say.
Hollywood did not say Mr. Dole doesn't have facts on his side.
"There is more research on this topic than on almost any other social issue of our time," University of Kansas Professor Aletha C. Huston said in 1989. "Virtually all independent scholars . . . agree. We keep pumping children with the messages that violence is the way to solve their problems -- and some of it takes hold."
For 30 years -- starting when Kefauver held his hearings on the effects of television violence and through the mid-1980s, when Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois held similar hearings -- the entertainment industry's defense had been the same: No evidence existed proving that television or movie violence translates into violence in society.
Moreover, industry officials postulated that television and movie violence has a cathartic effect on society -- that it might reduce the level of violence by providing a harmless outlet for aggressive feelings.
This claim so intrigued social scientists that hundreds of major studies were done to try and determine what effect violent television or movie images had on behavior -- particularly the behavior of children.
By 1984, the evidence was in -- and was unmistakable.
Study after study, from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Johannesburg, South Africa, shows that young people who watch a steady diet of violence are more prone to aggression or violence in real life than those who do not.
Mr. Simon spent several years seeking an antitrust exemption so the networks could discuss reducing violent programming. It passed in the Senate three times -- with Mr. Dole's support -- and finally passed in the House in 1990.
Despite their exemption, the networks didn't do much until more coercive measures were being discussed, including a call by Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts for a "violence" chip with which parents could scramble the signals of violent programming.
In response, the four major networks announced that they would experiment with an eight-word disclaimer on violent programming: "Due to some violent content, parental discretion advised."
Some parents organizations, religious groups and conservative critics, including former Education Secretary William J. Bennett, have also focused their ire on vulgarity and permissive sexual language and images that are commonplace in records and movies.
Mr. Simon never included sex in his legislation because the studies weren't there. "Sweden allows full frontal nudity on television -- but zero violence -- and they don't have the problems we do," said David Carle, a senior aide to Mr. Simon.
But some parents argued that common sense dictated otherwise. One of those was Tipper Gore, the wife of Vice President Al Gore.
In 1984, the same year Mr. Simon was shocked by the fare available on television, Mrs. Gore had a similar epiphany when she purchased a Prince album for her 11-year-old daughter and discovered that one of the songs was a crude ditty about a girl masturbating with a magazine.
Mrs. Gore spearheaded a campaign that resulted in record warning labels agreed upon by the record industry. For her troubles, Mrs. Gore was excoriated by record industry executives and performers in language far more harsh than the criticism sent Mr. Dole's way.
To the chagrin of many parents, that Prince song, "Darling Nikki," seems tame now compared with the songs and even video games that glorify cop killing, rape and mutilation of women, and teen suicide.
'Not crusade for censorship'
Mr. Dole insists -- as Mrs. Gore once did -- that he isn't attempting to use the federal government's power to censor. "Ours is not a crusade for censorship," he said. "It is a call for good citizenship."
Last week, Michael Fuchs, chairman of Time Warner's music division, responded: "I'd like some objective opinion, whether guns or lyrics are causing the kind of turmoil among America's youth that's tearing at the fabric of this country."
To most social scientists and parents, the answer is obvious: both.
"Washington blames Hollywood, and Hollywood yells 'McCarthyism!' or 'The First Amendment!' -- and meanwhile our culture goes down the sewer," said S. Robert Lichter, co-director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, an independent group that analyzes television and news. "Dole wouldn't be saying this if it didn't resonate with people -- and not just conservatives. This is an issue that is important to people all across the ideological spectrum."
Others see only Mr. Dole's political motives.
In liberal Hollywood, which gives generously to political campaigns -- overwhelmingly to Mr. Clinton and his fellow Democrats -- the reaction against Mr. Dole was swift and loud, just as it was three years ago when then-Vice President Dan Quayle accused the producers of the TV sitcom "Murphy Brown" of glamorizing out-of-wedlock births.
Noting that the Kansas Republican is seeking his party's nomination for the presidency against several opponents more conservative than he is, including Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, Mr. Dole's critics insisted that his primary motive was to curry favor with his party's right flank.
Some poked fun at the 71-year-old senator for admitting that he hasn't seen the movies he panned or ever listened to the "gangsta rap" he deplores.
For the most part, Democrats and other critics raised the issue of Mr. Dole's opposition to gun control.
They suggested that keeping intact the assault weapons ban pushed through Congress by Mr. Clinton last year -- Mr. Dole wants to repeal it -- would do more to make America's streets safe than toning down movies, television and records.
"Unbelievable hypocrisy" was the seething review of Mr. Dole's speech by Lara Bergthold, executive director of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee. "It's always easier for a senator to blame fictional characters than to blame themselves for their inability to take guns off the streets and provide jobs to people."
But Mr. Lichter is looking beyond the politics -- and believes voters will, too.
"Even if his motives are not the highest, what he's doing is important," he said. "Strategy, tactics, political maneuverings don't matter. What Dole said needs to be said."