MAXWELL:  The president’s enduring appeal

3/9/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Here we go again.

Incredulous journalists and academics are stumped that Bill Clinton continues to garner a 60-percent job-approval rating _ the highest of his presidency _ despite daily media reports that he was a key operative in the Democratic National Committee’s sleazy fund-raising campaign.

The roaring economy notwithstanding, I believe that a few other substantive forces account for the president’s popularity and are in such plain view that they elude nearly all of Clinton’s detractors. His millions of supporters, however, clearly understand their man’s strong appeal.

Following is my brief, common-sense explication of the president’s enduring popularity.

To begin with, Clinton, unlike the first lady, is naturally likable. Read, for example, part of a recent letter to the editor of the New York Times, a paper obsessed with Clinton’s foibles. I am sharing most of the letter because it captures the essence of how at least 60 percent of Americans feel about their president.

“Your March 2 news article on Chelsea Clinton’s visit to New York for her 17th birthday came to life for us as we sat in the orchestra at the Saturday matinee performance of Rent. Despite the inconveniences of attending a performance with the president, having Mr. Clinton in the audience provided a theater-going experience not soon forgotten. . . . After meeting the president and Mrs. Clinton, shaking hands and chatting for a moment, we were left with two impressions.

“First, while the Clintons are under scrutiny for various wrongdoings, you would never know it based on the standing ovation they received as they walked into the theater.

“Second, everything that is said about the president is true. Even in the most insignificant exchange, the man has a hypnotic effect. When he grasps one’s hand in a friendly grip, you are convinced he feels your pain. It may have been a powerful-enough moment to persuade us to write out a check in hopes for a night in the Lincoln Bedroom.”

Indeed, “feeling your pain” is quintessential Clinton, a trait that earns him more admirers than most pundits can comprehend or appreciate.

In a recent New York Times front-page article about his visit to Arkansas to survey massive flooding that claimed several lives and caused widespread property damage, the president is quoted as saying, “I look into the eyes of so many people here today and I wish there were more I could do. But I can tell you this: I’ll make you a little prediction. Within two years, what we’re looking at today will look better than it did before the storm hit, because of all of you. And we’re going to do what we can to help you.”

To the right of those words of empathy is a photograph of a blue jean-clad Clinton embracing a sobbing Judy Sligh, whose restaurant in Arkadelphia, Ark., was destroyed by a tornado. Further in the story, Clinton, after studying the damaged landscape by helicopter, is overheard muttering, “jeez,” “that’s awful” and “oh, God.”

Typical of the president’s reception in the devastated town are the words of the Rev. Hezekiah D. Stewart Jr., pastor of Arkadelphia’s Mount Nebo AME Church: “It’s kind of like a homeboy coming home, with the power and the ability to help heal some broken hearts and some wounds.”

And what does the president say about the disaster at trip’s end: “Nothing has quite affected me the way this has.” No one within earshot discounted his sincerity.

Still on the human level, Clinton remains popular because he burnishes the image of a loving father and a protector of the nation’s children. For instance, when Chelsea turned 17, the airwaves were flooded with images of the president doting on his only child, smiling and escorting her on his arm to galas. With such pictures in the background, even those who despise him suspect that Clinton’s new campaign promoting better parenting is not politics as usual.

On nearly every stop these days, Clinton never misses an opportunity to tout his efforts in higher education, boosting adoptions, fighting drugs and eradicating tobacco use among teenagers and children. Most recently, CNN showed the president in the Roosevelt Room of the White House surrounded by a group of children from across the nation wearing T-shirts hailing a “campaign for tobacco-free kids.”

Clinton, the nation’s No. 1 Dad, intones on CNN: “Most of us have an instinctive urge to protect our young people from danger. We make sure they bundle up before going out in the cold. We should wrap that same protective arm around them when it comes to resisting smoking and the advertising and marketing of cigarettes.”

In basic human terms, the president continues to win converts by showing that he has pretty much mastered the fine art of growing up. The brash baby boomer of the 1992 presidential campaign has been sent to his room to stay.

When, for example, was the last time MC Bubba played that down-and-dirty saxophone in public? No one on the White House staff dares bring it up anymore. That sax has fallen silent, and the late-night caricatures have stopped, too.

And what about those unsightly running shorts? No one has seen them lately. The truth is that Clinton rarely jogs on the streets of Washington these days. Instead, the mellower, 50-year-old president now enjoys a stretch routine behind closed doors in the White House residence. Aides say also that he takes afternoon naps.

Big Mac connoisseurs now must enjoy their greasy fare without Clinton. “I don’t think I’ve been in McDonald’s for several years now,” the president told reporter Michael Kranish of the Boston Globe. Clinton and the first lady actually enjoy the finer restaurants in Washington.

Look, too, at Clinton’s hair. “Well, I think his hair is significantly grayer or whiter,” Vice President Al Gore told the Globe. “I think it’s verging into the latter category.” And the president’s locks are more conservatively coiffured.

Clinton’s apparent maturation is not a simple cosmetic make-over, but the “conservatizing effects of age,” said Karlyn Bowman, who studies demographics and politics at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. Bowman argues that Clinton, the nation’s No. 1 baby boomer, is like others of his generation: He is growing more conservative in his politics and lifestyle. Even his choice of suits has changed, she said.

Moreover, Clinton is losing that commoner, Everyman aura that amused Easterners and embarrassed Southerners early on during his first administration.

And although a political subtext _ a Dick Morris script _ may underlie Clinton’s new persona, the fact remains that increasing numbers of people are beginning to like him because of his more mature veneer.

He is looking like a man who cares about the family, an aging boomer who worries about his health, who sees the necessity of protecting Social Security. The ex-governor who was the epitome of youth four years ago has grown into a future-oriented adult who claims that he wants to build a “bridge to the 21st century.”

On a more practical level, Clinton has enhanced his personal stock among voters by demonstrating a deft understanding of the dimensions of government. During his first term, he attempted to enact legislation, such as universal health care, that many voters, correctly or not, believed was off-limits to government.

Today, however, Clinton picks issues _ gun control, education, drug prevention, law enforcement, wiring public schools to the Internet, protecting the environment _ that people consider the proper domain of government.

Ironically, as the Democratic fund-raising scandal grows, the president’s popularity is being helped by his main nemesis: the press. “There’s a disconnect between the way Washington sees this, and the way the American public sees it,” said Andrew Kohut, a pollster who directs the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. “Their nerve endings are dulled if not dead to news of scandal about Bill Clinton. They feel the finance scandals are to be found on both sides of the aisle.”

Just as Americans have watched Chelsea grow from a homely adolescent into a pretty and poised young woman, they have watched their sax-blowing, boy-president mature into a more conservative adult.

Apparently _ if the president’s 60 percent approval rating is real _ the people like what they see and are willing either to forgive or to ignore Clinton’s foibles.