Of all possible explanations for the mainstream media’s preoccupation with the Clinton marriage, the most innocuous is nostalgia for a better time, when we were able to worry less about war, corruption, catastrophe and incompetence, and more about sex. Bad news only intensifies the urge to ignore reality and focus on triviality — a predilection seemingly shared by several of America’s most important journalists, as well as a legion of mindless tabloid hacks.

How comforting for the hacks, who tend to feel insecure about their mental and moral shortcomings, when the august editors of The New York Times decided to publish a tabloid-style review of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s private life on the May 23 front page. And how much nicer still when the “dean” of Washington political reporters, David Broder of The Washington Post, ratified that decision with a column in which he expressed a discreet yearning for more salacious details.

With the imprimatur of the paper of record, all the usual leering and clucking on cable television proceeded in an atmosphere of intellectual elevation. This was serious gossip.

Not that the Times story itself displayed any great depth, despite reporter Patrick Healy’s claim to have conducted interviews with “some 50 people.” Stuck on numbers, he sought to measure the marital status of the Clintons by counting how many days (or nights) they’ve spent together since the beginning of last year. According to his calculations, the average is about 14 days per month.

If the investigative ace were a bit sharper, he might have tried to compare that figure with similar data for other senators and members of Congress, many of whose marriages have been ruined by the demands and temptations of their jobs. The sad examples are plentiful, notably in the famous class of 1994, which has experienced an explosion of infidelity and divorce over the past decade.

The Times scribe depicted Bill Clinton as a playboy who occupies his evenings out on the town with billionaire bachelors. Omitted somehow were salient facts about the former president’s constant travel around the planet for public service. His AIDS work in Africa, China, Russia, Eastern Europe and the Caribbean, his tsunami-relief work in South Asia, and his hurricane-relief work in the United States require many nights away from home. His foundation keeps the itineraries, and it probably wouldn’t take 50 interviews to get them. But that humanitarian stuff is so boring — and clearly not what the editors wanted.

No, it’s the playboy theme that thrills. “Hardball” host Chris Matthews eagerly chewed over the Times investigation with various experts, including NBC bureau chief Tim Russert. The Clinton marriage, they agreed, would become a matter of prime importance if the senator runs for president. That is exactly backward, of course: While there are many reasons to be skeptical of Hillary Clinton’s potential bid for the White House, her admirable commitment to her marriage is not among them.

Reaching for relevance, Russert tried to formulate questions that “people” might ask: “Exactly what is Bill Clinton’s role in a [Hillary Clinton] campaign and in a presidency? And people also would say, ‘If he has a lot of free time on his hands in the White House, is [sic] that become an issue?” Sorry, but the former president has been using the “free time on his hands” to achieve more benefit to the world than the combined lifetime accomplishments of the nation’s talking heads.

Ultimately, this episode reveals less about the Clintons than about the decaying culture of Washington journalism. Like the Bourbons, the Washington press corps forgets nothing, forgives nothing and learns nothing. Its members remain utterly oblivious to their own mean-spirited hypocrisy.

Is there a reason why the enduring, 30-year bond of the Clintons merits more withering scrutiny than the multiple unhappy marriages of ambitious politicians such as Sen. John McCain and Rudolph Giuliani? Is there a reason why the marital privacy of elected officials should be violated, while media moguls like Rupert Murdoch can discard their wives with impunity?

Meanwhile, it is reassuring to know that the high-minded Healy, at least, is a professional searching for significance. As he told the American Society of Newspaper Editors a few years ago: “The media’s future depends on journalists exercising this responsibility in a way that earns them the public’s trust and confidence. . . . The most meaningful part of being a journalist, and the reason I chose that path, is the reward of telling stories about real-life, high-stakes matters of consequence, stories that will have an impact on real people.”

Doesn’t that say it all?

To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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