Some years ago, Cokie Roberts, faithful to her profession and to the proposition that those engaged in public discourse, at whatever level, should be left free to do as they liked, stopped short. What did it was a speech at the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association dinner, an annual affair at which, in 1996, 3,000 guests ate and drank in the company of President and Mrs. Clinton and listened to Don Imus.
After that night's performance, Ms. Roberts changed her mind. "I really don't think it would be appropriate for any of us to ever go back on (Imus' show)," she said. Imus' monologue "was profoundly rude not only to the president of the United States and the first lady, but also to our colleagues." Two days later, we learned from Mike McCurry, the president's press secretary, that National Public Radio's Elizabeth Arnold, who sat between him and the first lady on the dais, was trying to incite a mass walkout. In retrospect, McCurry wished he had backed her up instead of sitting there for 25 agonizing minutes. "I was getting prepared to send a note down the table saying, 'Let's go,' when mercifully (the speech) came to an end," McCurry later said. "I think we would have gotten a standing ovation if we'd done it."
Well, 11 years later, "it" was done to Don Imus, and the sense is of the restoration of clean air. Not universally -- nothing like that. The world of hip-hop, one learns, is untouchable. The language there is heavily coarse, profane and perverted. It is ironic that although hip-hop is disproportionately black, it was an anti-black crack that finally undid Don Imus.
One of his specialties, over the years, was cracks aimed at Jews. It is revealing that these he managed to get away with. Every now and then there was a rebuke, but he stayed on the air. This tells us interesting things about current U.S. culture. One of them is that anti-Semitism is not as mortal as one hoped. Another is that millions of Americans, though they show no evidence of inclining to acts of racial or religious persecution, did not much mind it when Imus broke the basic protocols; it was just a part of his act.
Standing inches away from the president that night in 1996, Imus said, "Mr. President" -- he was parodying the questions asked at presidential news conferences -- "we all know you're a pot-smoking weasel, that you once ate an apple fritter the size of a baby's head, and that you actually run a 12-minute mile. Could you therefore tell the American people why that thing on your lip looks like a Milk Dud? And if it is a Milk Dud, then I'd like a follow-up."
And of course Clinton was not the only target that night. "The president (nowadays) gets treated better by Rush Limbaugh (than by the White House press corps). Rush may not, as Al Franken suggests, be a 'big, fat idiot,' but I'm sick of him. The radio show, the television show, the stupid books, and now men's ties -- bold, vibrant, colorful, and all designed to look great with a brown shirt." This brought laughter. But anything -- anything -- will bring laughter to a crowd far gone in booze and impiety.
A huge commotion followed, though not until three days later, when Imus' speech was broadcast on C-SPAN; the association's celebratory evening was not interrupted. Imus was quoted as saying that the look he saw in Clinton's eye convinced him that if the president had had a gun, he'd have aimed it at the speaker and shot. A strong metaphor, but when the cocked guns began to go off on Thursday, it gave some satisfaction that there are reserves of decency in the land that sometimes assert themselves.