Disgrace under less pressure Politics: The relatively faint aftershocks of the Dick Morris resignation provide fresh indicators that the Clinton administration benefits from a shift in America's moral ground.

Sun Journal

September 07, 1996|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Bulletin: Dick Morris, the president's chief campaign adviser, quits after being accused of sharing White House secrets with a $200-an-hour hooker.

Public reaction: A few snickers, followed by a loud yawn. Within a couple of days, the story of Morris' misadventure goes out of the daily headlines.

What's going on here? Have Americans become so blase, so cynical, that they don't care about a good sex scandal anymore? Not one that involves an unelected adviser whom nobody knew much about anyway. And not one that occurs in the Clinton administration, where scandals (sexual, financial) have already come to light.

"An ordinary, run-of-the-mill heterosexual scandal?" says Benjamin Ginsberg, director of the Center for the Study of American Government at the Johns Hopkins University. "We've seen that before."

It's not that Americans can't be shocked. The country has been mesmerized in the past by the escapades of other political figures: Presidential hopeful Gary Hart and Donna Rice sailing to political doom on a boat called "Monkey Business." Rep. Wilbur Mills infatuated with a stripper. Rep. Wayne Hays consorting with a typist who couldn't type. Maryland congressman Robert Bauman arrested for soliciting sex from a teen-age prostitute.

But the public seems to set flexible standards when evaluating the private lives of public figures. The rules bend depending on the personality, the social climate, the offense.

Sure, Morris remains the punch line of Letterman and Leno jokes. And he has made the covers of Time and Newsweek. And he has a book deal for the story of how he rehabilitated the president.

But a national poll this week found that the story had little impact on voters. Almost 80 percent of the people surveyed said it would make no difference to their vote, while 13 percent said it made them less likely to back Clinton.

Elected officials are supposed to lead exemplary lives -- except we know that Bill Clinton has not always been the model husband. We know because he told us, on national television during the 1992 primary season, with his loyal wife at his side. He told us remorsefully just before the crucial New Hampshire primary, after Gennifer Flowers announced she'd had a years-long affair with Clinton.

The result: Clinton finished second in New Hampshire, declaring himself the "comeback kid" and rolling on to the White House.

Americans can be very forgiving.

But they can also cut politicians dead. Perhaps Hart would have fared better in 1987 had he seemed remorseful instead of arrogant when he taunted reporters who questioned his fidelity. Follow me, he challenged, as he denied any indiscretions. So reporters followed him, and found him with Donna Rice.

Hart went from front-runner for the 1988 Democratic nomination to a former candidate hounded by the press for weeks. He remains in political exile.

Clinton, meanwhile, is thriving -- despite Gennifer Flowers, despite a sexual harassment suit filed by Paula Jones, despite continued jokes about his wandering.

Political scientists believe that Americans allow Clinton more leeway in his personal life because, well, he's Clinton.

Ginsberg says Americans implicitly agree to hold presidents to different standards, standards that the public lets the president set. Jimmy Carter, for example, presented himself to the public as a churchgoing man, a devoted husband and father who taught Sunday Bible classes. Then he did an interview with Playboy, in which he admitted to certain human weaknesses.

"When he said he lusted in his heart, we were shocked," Ginsberg says. "If Clinton said he lusted in his heart, we'd say, 'Oh, just in his heart for a change.' It wouldn't make page 28 of the paper.

"We've become accustomed to the idea that this administration is just a little bit sleazy." Ginsberg says. "For whatever reason, we've decided to live with it. We have an administration that ask us to wink, and we've done that.

"We're jaded. Our shock-ability seems to have been lessened in recent years. If you have scandal after scandal after scandal, you become desensitized."

Marvin Kalb, former CBS News correspondent who directs Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Press and Politics, says that polls show Americans aren't rattled by reports of another sex scandal involving the Clinton White House:

"The polls that were done in '92 and again in '96 suggest very strongly that the American people have factored this character issue into the Clinton candidacy and that they really want a substantive debate on the issues.

"We know that in '92 the American people heard an enormous amount of information that was highly questionable about the candidate. They seem to be saying, 'This is not what we're interested in.' "

Also helping to sap interest in the story is the fact that there was other, competing news: The president ordered the bombing of Iraq. "That's focused people's attention on far more significant issues," Kalb says.

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