Not-so-conventional wisdom from the Keystone State BY Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

April 04, 1997

POTTSTOWN, Pa. -- If you listen to Walter Listhuis, a retired public school teacher drinking his "get-my-eyes-open" afternoon coffee, the conventional wisdom in Washington is once again right about the campaign fund-raising issue.

"They all do it," Mr. Listhuis says. "It's just that Bill Clinton does it better than the rest of them. He's shameless. But nobody cares very much. There are too many other things to worry about."

You hear that, or something very similar, from a lot of voters in eastern Pennsylvania these days. They confirm the finding of several scientific opinion polls that tell us Americans are so jaded about the political process they don't bother to sort out the good guys and the bad guys.

"I'm not saying they're all crooks," says Tom Carson, a computer consultant who lives near Reading, "but I am saying they all will do whatever the hell they have to do to get re-elected. And if that means selling the Lincoln Bedroom, they'll do it."

MaryAnne Cathiness, who describes herself as "a serious Democrat until all these shenanigans started," puts it this way: "I started out blaming the press for piling on Clinton because I figured (Newt) Gingrich had to be just as bad. Now I don't want jTC to tell my friends the Democrats are the clean ones."

A Republican lawyer in Harrisburg who preferred to remain anonymous ridicules a Washington reporter. "You think Clinton's so bad because you people are so incompetent you haven't found the Republican stories. Get it right, nobody gives a damn."

All of this seems to confirm that conventional Washington wisdom. Interviews at random with three dozen voters in Pennsylvania flesh out what the opinion polls have been saying for several weeks -- that the political damage to President Clinton and the Democratic Party has been less dramatic in the electorate than it appears in Washington.

Even politicians who might be expected to have a stake in exaggerating the issue don't do so. Gov. Tom Ridge, the popular Republican in power here, for example, says voters are far more interested in their job security "and how they are going to pay for the kids' braces" than in the inside baseball of fund-raising excesses in Washington.

But if you listen to voters, there is an undertone that may be difficult, if not impossible, for the polls to quantify -- and may give the White House more reason for concern.

Clinton erosion

For example, Walter Listhuis is not as sanguine as he may first appear to be about the political system. "I've always been a Democrat, and I thought the Democratic Party stood for what I stand for. Now I think some of that is being destroyed by Bill Clinton. If you're going to make a big campaign with the fat cats, you might as well be a Republican. You don't care a hell of a lot about me."

Henry Janowitz, a lawyer, feels the same sense of betrayal. "Hell," he says, "I thought the Republicans were the ones who played these games. That's what I told my kids all these years. Now, I don't know anymore."

The Walter Listhuises and Henry Janowitzes are probably not the average voters. They read the newspapers and they pay a lot more attention to politics than many voters. But they also may be the ones to whom others in their community are most likely to listen.

One factor that may be changing the dynamics of the issue is that it seems to be getting increased attention on the network television news broadcasts although most of the disclosures of questionable practices have been made by newspapers. Several of the voters questioned at random mentioned that, as one put it, "I've been seeing more about it lately, so the facts seem to be coming out."

The focus is clearly on the president. "I thought he was doing his job," said a young mother who didn't want her name used, "but now it looks like he spent a lot of his valuable time piling up the money for his re-election. That's not right."

The view that something is "not right" is the most common one with these voters. They may suspect that "everybody does it" but the evidence they are seeing is all about the White House. And eventually they may be ready to fix the blame.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 4/04/97

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