Exploring the appeal of seamy journalism Scandal: Harper's Magazine looks at the response to reports of sexual escapades.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Have we become a tabloid nation, captivated by all things salacious and seamy? Harper's Magazine editor Lewis H. Lapham thinks so.

In the August issue, Lapham tours the recent garden of tabloid delights -- from the sexual misbehavior of Eddie Murphy, Marv Albert and Michael Kennedy to the adultery of Kelly Flinn and Frank Gifford -- and tries to make sense of the nation's confused attitude toward sex.

In the wry, sweeping prose he has made his trademark, Lapham chronicles the transformation in his own lifetime, celebrating the sexual license the last few decades have brought but bemoaning its corruption into licentiousness.

"I remember that during the decade of the 1960s, in the early stages of what later became known as the sexual revolution, the photographs in Hugh Hefner's Playboy magazine opened a window in what I suddenly saw as a prison wall made of sermons in Protestant stone," he writes.

The problem, as Lapham sees it, is that America finds itself adrift between moral codes, buffeted by each lubricious breeze and unsure of what stars to steer by. He sees President Clinton, a man unable to resist his own appetites, as an enabler for our national sexual immaturity. The president, Lapham writes, "presents a role model not unlike that of Peter Pan and so excuses the rest of the class from the tedium of moral homework. With such a President, why bother to aspire to an adult code of ethics?"

Lapham has long been the sultan of simile, and even if you dismiss his censorious paradigm, you'll smile in appreciation at the soaring whimsy of his tropes: generals "falling like ninepins .. into the gutters of lust," a nation approaching a discussion of sex "as cautiously as chambermaids dusting very old porcelain," and a society that "can't tell the difference between adultery and a program of aerobic exercise."

While Lapham's essay may bring a smile to your face, Joy Williams' detailed story about the way America uses animals is guaranteed to make you gasp aloud in horror. If you've ever rolled your eyes at the seeming impracticality of animal-rightists, you owe it to yourself to read the piece: It may just jar your conscience into a re-examination of your prejudices.

A window on the right

Perplexed by the vehemence with which conservatives have laced into former Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld? The July 28 issue of National Review provides an interesting window into the right-wing mind-set, trashing both Weld and New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, otherwise considered pretty decent governors, as the sorriest of failures. Yes, Whitman kept her promise to cut income taxes by 30 percent, writes Kate O'Beirne, but "the top rates came down by much less," and she actually proposed raising the cigarette tax!

But the National Review's hit-and-run job on Weld is even worse. There's no mention of his budget balancing, his pro-business policies or his crackdown on crime -- issues once dear to conservatives -- and only the slightest nod to his tax cutting. Weld's sins? Well, he has had the temerity to work with Democratic legislative leaders, and he signed a legislative pay hike after saying he wouldn't -- in return for a "small reduction" in the capital-gains tax. ("Small," here, proves an elastic term when one considers that under Weld's reduction, the state capital-gains tax is completely eliminated on assets held six years or longer.)

Oh, yes -- and Weld hasn't been responsive enough to Republican State Committee member Vincent McLaughlin, who bad-mouths him throughout.

Now, Bay State conservatives are famous for making the perfect the enemy of the good. (Not so very long ago one local conservative columnist declared that William F. Buckley himself was no longer a conservative, an announcement somewhat akin to Dumbo telling Jumbo he was no longer an elephant). Still, wouldn't it have been fairer of National Review to reveal that McLaughlin has been the governor's sworn enemy since candidate Weld dumped the conservative gadfly from his 1990 campaign, and refused to put him on the state payroll?

But if National Review is such a black hole of ideology that it warps the truth, the Weekly Standard offers the week's best insight into Republican turmoil. Matthew Rees explains the ins and outs of the failed coup that has left Newt Gingrich contemning Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, and John Boehner, his subalterns.

The only reason Gingrich hasn't defenestrated that trio, Rees writes, is that he can't: They were elected by the GOP membership. Instead, he contented himself with ousting Bill Paxon, the one leadership member he himself appointed. That move, executive editor Fred Barnes argues, may pave the way for the coup to come by making a martyr of the popular Paxon.

Cars and parks

If you've journeyed to a national park on a recent vacation, only to find that a city's downtown is less crowded and quieter, you'll want to check out the August issue of Audubon, the magazine of the National Audubon Society. Audubon examines how the growing congestion -- 250 million visitors per year -- is degrading the natural experience the parks are supposed to impart.

On peak days, 6,500 cars vie for 2,400 parking places near the South Rim of the Grand Canyon; Yosemite becomes a medium-size city, replete with restaurants, video stores, a bank branch and a 24-hour photo-developing service; and at Yellowstone, 80,000 snowmobiles each winter degrade the air quality to levels similar to that of Denver.

All that has led the Park Service to look for ways to limit cars and, in some cases, access to the national parks. That's an approach some find elitist. ("I don't like to paddle, and I don't like to walk," said former Interior Secretary James Watt, who tried to open the parks up to even more motorized vehicles.)

But by the time you've finished mulling over what Audubon has to offer, you'll be hard-pressed not to conclude that it might be better for everyone if the Park Service restricted some of our national vacationlands to those willing to expend calories, and .. not just gasoline, to enjoy them.

Pub Date: 8/03/97

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