WASHINGTON -- For the insomniac set, the nightly monologues of Johnny Carson and Jay Leno constitute a rough barometer of who's up and down in political celebrity -- and ridicule. And by that barometer, Gov. Bill Clinton is getting eclipsed by Texas businessman H. Ross Perot, the man currently busy being available for a presidential draft.
For the Arkansas governor, the emergence of Perot as this month's hot political story is a mixed blessing. On the plus side, Perot is a diversion from the incessant hammering Clinton has taken on questions of his character, honesty and integrity. On the minus, Perot is drawing so much news-media attention that he competes with Clinton's efforts to get voters to focus on his substantive agenda and sharp differences with President Bush.
The Perot phenomenon is also occurring just as Clinton has some modest reason to hope that the damage of the character issue may be waning, in the eyes of Democratic voters if not the politicians. Clinton supporters point to the exit polls taken after the Pennsylvania primary, indicating that roughly two-thirds of voting Democrats agreed that Clinton has "the honesty and integrity to serve effectively as president."
That figure compared favorably with the 49 percent who answered affirmatively to the same question after the New York primary, and not too surprisingly. In New York, Clinton took an unmerciful pounding from the tabloids on the character issue, including the new element that surfaced there -- his dissembling on smoking marijuana in England as a Rhodes scholar (but not inhaling). In Pennsylvania, he enjoyed three weeks of low-key, uneventful stumping against a deflated opponent, Jerry Brown.
But with Perot now hogging the spotlight, Clinton's best bet to grab a bigger share of it may not be making another speech contrasting his agenda with that of President Bush, but rather having another allegation of personal misconduct fall on him.
Actually, it has been nearly a month since Clinton has been hit with a notable "character" question. That was the disclosure on April 4 that he had received a draft notice when he was in England, contrary to the impression he had left that he had never been called, and was saved from the draft by the luck of the lottery draw. Like other aspects of the draft story, he dismissed it as a misunderstanding and won the New York primary anyway.
1% There is considerable evidence in
the exit polls on Clinton's character woes that no single one of them severely damaged him, but that the cumulative effect began to take its toll, until the campaign in Pennsylvania enabled him to make a comeback.
There have been seven separate elements in the character indictment against Clinton: 1) Jan. 17 -- the lawsuit by a disgruntled state employee that first surfaced the womanizing charges; 2) Jan. 23 -- the Gennifer Flowers gossip tabloid expose; 3) Feb. 6 -- the suggestion of draft evasion in the Wall Street Journal; 4) Feb. 12 -- release of Clinton's letter acknowledging his efforts to stay out of the military to maintain future "political viability;" 5) March 20 -- disclosure of golfing at an all-white club; 6) March 29 -- the marijuana story; 7) April 5 -- the induction notice story.
The first four of these had surfaced before the first exit poll character question by ABC News and CBS News on the day of the South Dakota primary, Feb. 25. Yet, 61 percent said they thought Clinton passed the honesty and integrity test. A week later, in Georgia, Maryland and Colorado, about 60 percent of voters told ABC News that the allegations were no factor in how they voted. (Clinton won Georgia and ran second in Maryland and Colorado.)
The next week, on Super Tuesday, voters everywhere but Massachusetts, where home-stater Paul Tsongas won, gave Clinton high marks for honesty and integrity. There, only 38 percent so credited him, and in Connecticut two weeks later, only 48 percent. His losses in both states spotlighted the character issue. It seemed to cling in the 49 percent in New York who said they didn't think he had the honesty and integrity for the job.
Now, as Clinton may be on the upswing on this issue after Pennsylvania, here comes Perot -- a short man casting a long shadow over him. Clinton has to hope that it won't last, but that seems a fragile hope right now.