MAXWELL:  Changes in attitudes give Clinton wide latitude

9/29/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


What a difference four years has made in the metamorphosis of Bill Clinton. During the first two years of the Clinton administration, pundits tried to account for the antipathy so many Americans voiced for their new president. Some writers believed that the intensity of the Clintonphobia was disproportionate to the seriousness of the man’s alleged sins and character flaws.

Today, few people are asking why Clinton is hated. The question now is how has he survived four years of attacks against his character and managed to gain such widespread popularity?

Consider a recent Washington Post-ABC poll showing that 56 percent of voters do not believe that Clinton has “high personal moral and ethical standards” and that 52 percent do not believe that he is “honest and trustworthy.” Paradoxically, the same survey gave the president a 14-point lead over Republican challenger Bob Dole and found that many more voters believe that Clinton understands their plights better than Dole and that he is “attuned to modern problems.”

No group is more dumbfounded than GOP operatives. The comments of Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary in the Reagan and Bush administrations, are typical: “Clinton’s Teflon surpasses any logical explanation. There isn’t a voter who hasn’t heard of Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Whitewater, the FBI files and all the rest. There is no president in 100 years who could have weathered this. It defies political analysis.”

Even so, a few credible observations are worth noting. In a Sept. 9 interview with National Public Radio host Bob Edwards, Washington Post reporter John Harris offered an excellent explanation by distinguishing between private and public character.

The vast majority of Americans, Harris said, believe that Clinton’s private life _ his private character _ is messy, that he lacks discipline, that he is, or used to be, promiscuous. By itself, Clinton’s private character is nobody’s business. On the other side, the president has a public character, which is his ability to govern and manage the problems of the nation, problems such as the economy, the environment, foreign affairs.

“Where Clinton’s character has become a problem,” Harris said, “is when the traits of his personal character . . . begin to assert themselves on the public stage with respect to issues. Is he being decisive with respect to Haiti or the balanced budget and so forth? When there’s an intersection, personal character really does matter. Right now, there’s not much of an intersection. Clinton’s public decisions have shown a fair amount of discipline over the past two years.”

Another reason that Clinton survives, even thrives, is that many Americans seem to be adopting the Europeans’ blase attitude toward the peccadilloes of their leaders and public figures. All around, from the world of entertainment, sports, business and politics, we see heroes and leaders who are no better, or worse than, Clinton.

Have we become desensitized to certain kinds of bad behavior? Probably. Harris said, however, that Americans “are not so much disillusioned as they are without illusions. They have come to their own peace with what they acknowledge are Clinton’s flaws as a person and as a politician. And they see no contradiction between their distaste for some aspects of Clinton with often ebullient support for other aspects.”

William Bennett, former education secretary in the Reagan administration, drug czar for President Bush and self-described guru of virtues, cannot understand the public’s current lack of concern for character. “Should character matter in this campaign?” he asked rhetorically at a recent Dole rally. “It is an indication of the difficulties this country is in that people ask the question . . . What is more important than the character of our president? Bill Clinton is one of the most unprincipled major public figures of recent history.”

Sam Gaines, a Virginia psychologist, said that people such as Bennett and other Clinton-bashers have caused many voters to overdose on character: “I believe one part of the problem is that people are sick of the messenger.” Gaines might be right. Many pollsters believe that Clinton, the “comeback kid,” benefits from the broadsides. In fact, some people, including feminists who despise him, find Clinton more appealing when he is under siege.

Clinton haters also fail to understand that many voters do not seriously hold any one person _ not even the president _ responsible for the nation’s moral frailties.

On a cynical note, a sociology professor suggested that “character has slowly been bred out of many Americans, especially baby boomers and their children.” He argues that decades of pampering, organized activities and feel-good approaches, in which participants do not have to take personal responsibility, have made character almost passe.

But the most compelling explanations for Clinton’s resilience also are the simplest.

First, he spends much time in public doting over Chelsea. He tells the nation that, as a father, he worries that “his little girl” is going away to college next year. Such ordinariness makes the president human, just another dad.

Second, and perhaps most important, Clinton truly connects with people. Moreover, he likes people. And they like him in return. He is a charmer. He remembers people’s faces and their names years later. The president talks to people face-to-face.

Ironically, one of the best acknowledgments of Clinton’s appeal comes from Republican pollster Frank Luntz: “Words matter. The way you communicate and what you say does matter, and Clinton is a man who knows how to communicate, to touch you and get inside your soul.”