Asking the obvious Clinton question

238px Clintons2004conventionNow it's official. That mysterious New York Times story about the state of Hillary and Bill Clinton's marriage is officially the buzz topic of the week here inside the Beltway. We know that because the official voice of the old D.C. journalistic establishment -- that would be David S. Broder -- has written a column about it. So let's slide backward in search of the ghost in this mess. We start with Broder describing the New York senator's Tuesday morning appearance at the National Press Club.

For the better part of an hour, the senator from New York held forth in a disquisition on energy policy that was as overwhelming in its detail as it was ambitious in its reach. But the buzz in the room was not about her speech -- or her striking appearance in a lemon-yellow pantsuit -- but about the lengthy analysis of the state of her marriage to Bill Clinton that was on the front page of that morning's New York Times.

So what did this all-important Times piece say? Almost nothing. And that's the news. It is very, very hard to write a boring story about the Clintons. Click here if you want to explore it for yourself. Even the headline is a yawner: "Clintons Balance Married and Public Lives." Here is the thesis statement:

When the subject of Bill and Hillary Clinton comes up for many prominent Democrats these days, Topic A is the state of their marriage -- and how the most dissected relationship in American life might affect Mrs. Clinton's possible bid for the presidency in 2008.

Democrats say it is inevitable that in a campaign that could return the former president to the White House, some voters would be concerned or distracted by Mr. Clinton's political role and the episode that led the House to vote for his impeachment in 1998.

You think so? Would these moral concerns be more intense in some zip codes than in others? Would concerns be more common in pews and pulpits than in faculty lounges and newsrooms?

I really don't have to ask any snarky questions about the article because Jack Shafer of Slate.com has already asked most of them in an essay entitled "The Bill and Hillary Code." Shafer really doesn't nail Times reporter Patrick Healy for anything, in part because the piece has the feel of a story that was worked over by legions of editors and lawyers and the lawyers working for the editors. It is impossible to ask the question that the so-called "values voters" out there want to see asked.

Healy could directly ask, "Is Bill cheating?" Instead, he writes a donut around the subject. As the piece spirals out to 2,000 words, the donut grows into a 20-inch Michelin radial, and the radial becomes a NASCAR oval. The experienced reader finds himself searching the infield of this great expanse for what appear to be clues.

hillbillyThe morality questions will not go away, for sure. However, I found myself wanting an answer to a simple question that would have been very easy to ask and pretty easy to answer. Bill and Hillary probably -- maybe -- would have wanted to answer it.

Note that Healy and his army of anonymous, but gentle, sources give us chapter and verse on where the Clintons live and work and how they spend their time (no GPS data, however).

Now, it may have been hard to find out if they share a bedroom at either of their homes and how often said New Democrats are in those bedrooms at the same time. That's what the buzz is all about, but I think that's a bit much to ask, don't you?

But would it have been hard to find out if and when and where these moderate/centrists go to church?

Faith is hot right now. Even Howard Dean says so. Before you know it, journalists will need to know that information about the Clintons in order to prepare for campaign 2008 photo opportunities.

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