Clinton has to expect more notice of his past



WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, asked at a town hall meeting in Providence, R.I., the other night whether he felt "you're being held to a higher standard than previous presidential families," made the debatable reply that "I think I've been subject to more assault than any previous president."

If the two who faced impeachment in office, Andrew Johnson and Richard Nixon, were still alive, they might disagree. So, no doubt, would Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield and John F. Kennedy, all assassinated in office, not to mention Harry Truman, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, who survived assaults with intent to kill.

But Clinton's feeling is understandable in light of the way first the Whitewater case and now the Paula Jones accusations of sexual misconduct have intruded in recent months on his time and the public's concentration on his legislative agenda.

The president's initial response to the questions about Whitewater was to whine that it was all partisan stuff hatched by a Republican Party "committed to a politics of personal destruction," as he said in New Hampshire in March. The first lady had already weighed in by calling the questions about Whitewater "a well-organized and well-financed attempt to undermine my husband, and by extension myself, by people who have a different political agenda or have another personal and financial reason for attacking us."

Clinton's newly appointed lawyer to defend him in Jones' lawsuit, Robert Bennett, is now suggesting the same about that matter, charging that she is "being used" by unnamed "well-known enemies" of the president under the impression there will be money and celebrity in it for her.

At the Providence town meeting, Clinton quoted Vice President Al Gore as saying "there are powerful forces in this country who basically resent the way the last election came out, so they keep trying to undo it and pretend it didn't happen." That may well be so, but what Truman said in his day is good advice to Clinton: "If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen."

Bill Clinton knew long before he ran for president in 1992 that long-simmering rumors of womanizing hung over his political future. In fact, it was widely believed in Arkansas that he was planning to seek the White House in 1988 but decided against it out of concern that the rumors would scuttle his chances. In 1991, when he did start to run, he and his wife set out deliberately to deal with the issue by jointly attending a breakfast with Washington reporters at which he acknowledged that his marriage had "not been perfect or free of problems," but that they were now "committed to our marriage."

When the issue of womanizing nevertheless did surface in the Gennifer Flowers accusations during the New Hampshire primary of 1992, the Clintons went on "60 Minutes" and he admitted -- unprecedentedly -- to "wrongdoing" and "causing pain in my marriage." That seemed to satisfy most voters on the point, but it didn't end the questions about Clinton's character, raised anew in his artful dodging on the steps he took to avoid the draft during the Vietnam war.

In politics, there is no statute of limitations on voters' doubts about a public figure's trustworthiness. Nor is there any rule that says the election results wipe the slate clean. The label "Tricky Dick," for example, clung to Nixon long after his election to the presidency. It may be unfair, but as Finley Peter Dunne's Mister Dooley said, "Politics ain't beanbag," and Clinton has to expect that his suspect past with women will continue to be thrown at him from time to time.

The president seems of late to have grown a bit more philosophical about it all. In the Providence town meeting, he observed that "we'll have an election in 1996" at which time "people will have another chance to make a decision" on the country's leadership. While "the constant politics of diversion and division and destruction is not good for America," he said, he is "prepared to live with it and keep working" as long as he can keep the clamor from interfering with his agenda. Under the circumstances, he has little other choice.

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