Clinton's So Like Us We Don't Like Him

October 23, 1994|By CARL M. CANNON

"The larger issue is that he's evasive and slick . . . philandering, pot-smoking, draft dodger."

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"There has never been a time when the organized forces of the status quo haven't been able to drive down the popularity of a president who really fought for change."

These are the polar-opposite views that form the parameters of public opinion on a vexing question -- why Bill Clinton provokes such antipathy with so many Americans.

The memorable first description of Mr. Clinton came in 1992 from Mary Matalin, an aide to George Bush in that campaign. The second is Mr. Clinton's own self-assessment, provided on Oct. 7.

Perhaps most people would find themselves somewhere in the middle: Mr. Clinton isn't entirely blameless for his problems, we might say, but neither are the Republicans.

To be sure, Mr. Clinton has never held the affections of a majority of Americans. About 104 million adults voted in 1992. In the three-way race, Mr. Clinton tallied almost 45 million votes -- about 43 percent of the total. Thus, when his approval rating dips to 38 or 39 percent, that's only a 5 percentage point drop.

And the contention made by Mr. Clinton and his allies that the bashing of this president is unprecedented is not generally accepted by presidential historians.

Still, it appears that there is something about this president -- and his wife -- that huge numbers of Americans just cannot stand.

It's apparent in his low popularity in the polls, in the scorn expressed by drive-time radio hosts, in the crude jokes about Hillary Rodham Clinton. It's also evidenced by the way Republican candidates are linking their Democratic opponents to Clinton and in the way many Democrats have responded -- mainly by avoiding the president.

Interviews with dozens of presidential scholars, pollsters, other students of American culture and voters, reveal that there isn't one single answer why.

In recent weeks, Mr. Clinton's aim on foreign policy has been true. The economic recovery is in full throttle. In other words, Mr. Clinton is presiding over peace and prosperity, and by rights should be riding high. So what's wrong?

In interviews with experts and nonexperts, familiar subjects come up: the draft, Gennifer Flowers, smoking marijuana, Ms. Clinton's commodities trading, an administration that's more liberal than Mr. Clinton suggested during the campaign that it would be, the perceived weakness of the White House staff.

There is something else, too.

There is a pessimism in the land that has resulted in a disconnection between the American people and their institutions. This is not pop psychology; it's in the polling data, and it's in the interviews. If we don't have as much faith in our presidents as we used to, one reason is that we don't have as

much faith in ourselves as we used to, either.

Rise of the 'dittoheads'

The end of the Cold War meant the end of the nuclear threat that put everyone in the same boat. Unfettered from a common enemy and a common fear, Americans were free to do what they'd done before in peacetime -- to Balkanize into vastly different communities of interest.

In such an environment, Rush Limbaugh's fans, the "dittoheads," thrive. So does Louis Farrakan's Nation of Islam.

An army of conservative talk show hosts from Maine to San Diego vilifies Mr. Clinton each day. Surveys show their audience to be white, mostly male and politically conservative. Railing against liberalism, feminism and multiculturalism, the talk shows and their listeners focus on two people who epitomize everything they think is wrong with America -- Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"I've been doing talk radio since Lyndon Johnson was president, and there's no question in my mind that he's more unpopular than all the others, including Nixon, combined," says WBAL's Allan Prell.

Mr. Clinton's allies insist that if this is true, it's the fault of Mr. Prell's conservative brethren. Mr. Prell agrees that there's something to that but says there are other salient factors. Mr. Clinton's missteps involving women, marijuana, and Arkansas real estate deals have all come out while he's still in office.

He also points out that Mr. Clinton has come to power at a time when the public is fundamentally angry at government -- and that the president necessarily symbolizes that government.

"In all honesty, I don't have my finger on the pulse of the public at large," said conservative talk show host Tom Marr, who gives Mr. Clinton a hard time each day on WCBM. "I have my finger on the pulse of the dissatisfied. Satisfied people don't call radio stations. But there is a lot of dissatisfaction out there."

Mr. Marr asserts that Mr. Clinton exacerbated this anger by running as a "new kind of Democrat," that he proved almost immediately that he was just another liberal.

"I think the people see him as a phony," Mr. Marr said.

David N. Bossie, a conservative activist, drives 44 miles each way every day from Burtonsville, Md., to Fairfax, Va., to put out an anti-Clinton newsletter. He puts it this way:

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