Clinton's slickness has a lot of voters squirming ON POLITICS

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

April 09, 1992|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- When, do you imagine, was the last time a presidential candidate swept four state primaries on a single night, including a 12-point victory in a very major state, and woke up the next morning to find that many analysts were reciting the political last rites over him?

That's what greeted Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton after his decisive successes in New York and Kansas and closer victories in Wisconsin and Minnesota. But it should be remembered that the last rites are administered in the Catholic Church not only to certified terminal patients but also to those who seem only at risk to depart this veil. Some survive.

In light of Clinton's accumulation of well over half the 2,145 delegates he needs to clinch the Democratic nomination, it is clear that he is far from gasping his last political breaths. But the severe doubts expressed about him by voters Tuesday make clear the concern of Democrats that Clinton, having lived through the raucous New York primary, will expire in the fall campaign against President Bush.

Seldom have the voters as a group been more schizophrenic in their behavior. When the first allegations of womanizing were leveled at Clinton, most voters told pollsters that the candidate's personal life was of minor concern to them. And when the charges of draft-dodging surfaced shortly afterward, voters in the South, where patriotism is so often worn on one's sleeve, responded by voting decisively for him.

When voters had former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas as a campaigning alternative to Clinton in Illinois and Michigan, they rejected him. But after Tsongas "suspended" his campaign, the voters made him runner-up ahead of actively campaigning Jerry Brown in New York and Kansas.

It should be clear from all this that so many Democratic voters turned to Tsongas on Tuesday not because his pro-business message, which had fallen silent, had suddenly won them over. Rather, they did not see Brown as a credible alternative to Clinton and still yearned for one. One exit poll had 48 percent of those who voted for Tsongas saying they had done so because they didn't want Clinton or Brown.

If voters are to be believed when they say the early womanizing and draft-dodging allegations against Clinton didn't bother them, what is it that causes them to question his "character and integrity?" The answer is that they have come to see him as a trimmer. Instead of lying outright or flip-flopping 180 degrees on issues, he shaves a little here and there to make himself appear other than what he is, or has been. And in doing so, he repeatedly steps on his own often persuasive message of constructive change.

Clinton first said the claim of Little Rock nightclub singer Gennifer Flowers that she had a 12-year affair with him wasn't true -- while acknowledging that his past behavior had hurt his wife and that their marriage had had its difficulties.

Similarly, for weeks he danced around the allegation that he had tried to avoid the draft, using various reconstructions of his draft history to create the impression that he had done nothing untoward. Finally, he glibly dismissed the two allegations with a complaint that he had been pilloried by charges about "a woman I never slept with and a draft I never dodged." It had a nice, tidy ring to it.

But any way you sliced it, it became clearer and clearer that the man was given to dissembling. When Flowers reported a taped conversation in which Clinton was quoted as likening New York Gov. Mario Cuomo to a member of the Mafia, Clinton questioned the veracity of the tape -- but apologized to Cuomo. He said he hadn't broken any drug laws in this country, then admitted only under direct questioning that he had tried pot in England -- but never inhaled! And when it was revealed, contrary to what he had indicated earlier, that he had in fact received a notice of induction while studying abroad on a deferment, he kissed it off as a misunderstanding.

No wonder so many Democrats have severe reservations about Clinton's ability to win in the fall. If George "Whatever It Takes" Bush was able in 1988 to take apart a straight arrow like Michael Dukakis, they can only imagine what he could do to Clinton. But who knows? Maybe, to prevail against Bush, the Democrats need a "Slick Willie."

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