Scandal fatigue: Sex, lies, so what! Apathy: Republicans may have demonized Bill Clinton too many times. Now that a real "wolf" might be at the door, people want proof.

February 11, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Clinton White House has pulled off the hat trick this week: Three distinct and weighty controversies have converged on the administration at once with a dizzying array of allegations about sex, perjury, obstruction of justice, money laundering and quid pro quos.

And so far, the public appears to be dizzy only with apathy - suffering, some say, from a severe case of scandal fatigue.

By any standards, this should not be a good week for the Clinton administration: The sex and cover-up scandal is still percolating, with new details emerging each day and the star attraction, Monica Lewinsky, scheduled to testify before a federal grand jury tomorrow.

Attorney General Janet Reno is expected to announce today that she is recommending the appointment of an independent counsel - yet another one - to investigation allegations of wrongdoing by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the fourth Clinton Cabinet member to be the subject of such an investigation.

And the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee this week leaked to the press its draft report about campaign fund-raising abuses of the 1996 election, charging that Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and their top aides deliberately violated the "letter and spirit" of federal election laws.

All this and Clinton's approval rating is sky-high, and the public seems to be saying, "We've heard enough."

"There's a numbness," says Edward J. Rollins, a Republican strategist. "People have become used to the whole swirl of special investigations."

The public's cynicism about its leaders, Rollins says, has reached a new height, bolstered by the fiercely partisan nature of Washington and an "everybody does it" resignation about corruption that started with Watergate and has since become part of the political landscape here.

"The public has learned to dismiss Washington as not being very relevant to their lives," said Rollins, whose career was derailed by an imbroglio over his efforts on behalf of the campaign of Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey. "They're beginning to treat Washington like they treat Hollywood - it's entertainment, as long as their politicians are not screwing up, which gets measured by the economy or war.

"It's a different world - the Hollywood of the East."

Those who chart public opinion say scandal fatigue has been a constant throughout Clinton's presidency, from the moment he introduced himself to the nation as a less-than-ideal husband on "60 Minutes," through a campaign marked by charges of infidelity, marijuana use and draft-dodging, through six years of "gates" and crises: Whitewater, travelgate, filegate, troopergate, coffeegate, Lincoln Bedroom sleep overs, Paula Corbin Jones and now Monica Lewinsky.

The Clinton camp has steadfastly denied wrongdoing at every turn and, in fact, has borrowed a strategy used successfully to defuse scandals in the past - even by President Warren G. Harding during the Teapot Dome oil scandal of the 1920s: Attack one's opponents and the media for being partisan and overzealous.

Meanwhile, Clinton's chief nemesis, Kenneth W. Starr, the Whitewater independent counsel, has been at work for nearly four years with an ever-expanding investigation that, thus far at least, has produced no charges that come anywhere near the president or first lady.

"All of these charges - whether it's Whitewater or Paula Jones - have remained allegations," says Andrew C. Kohut, a pollster and director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "The public is not saying, he's innocent, but they're saying, 'Well, we don't know.' They're not willing to throw him overboard on the basis of what he might have done."

Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University, says he believes that Clinton's critics are largely to blame for the big yawn from the public.

These Clinton opponents, Lichtman suggests, have overplayed their hand at the first crackle of fireworks and have tried to portray every allegation of impropriety as the greatest crisis of the republic.

"They've cried wolf too many times," Lichtman says. "Now nobody believes the wolf of scandal is at the door."

For example, he says, Republican efforts to make campaign fund raising a burning issue fell flat after Senate hearings failed to prove a central contention - that the Chinese government had tried to influence the 1996 U.S. elections through illegal contributions.

"When they couldn't prove that," Lichtman says, "nobody wanted to listen to anything else."

Many agree that the healthy economy has made the public much more tolerant of any personal failings in the president.

"We're all in a state of denial, we want it to go away," says Stephen Hess, senior government studies fellow at the Brookings Institution. "The economy's so darn good, nobody wants a constitutional crisis. But it may be coming."

In fact, Hess says he could envision a day sometime soon when the public will react with alarm and the Clinton administration will no longer be able to, as he says, keep sweeping their controversies under the rug.

"The rug could get so high," he says, "it will be hard to cross the room."

Indeed, one need not look back very far to see how fortunes can turn on a dime. President George Bush saw the stratospheric poll numbers he enjoyed after the Persian Gulf war take a nose dive once the economy did the same.

Still, historians say, the public has a pretty high threshold for outrage. Watergate, the only scandal to bring down a president, looks to be more the exception than the rule. Even Teapot Dome, the greatest scandal the nation had seen to date, coincided with the Roaring '20s and a giddy self-confidence about America.

"Generally, presidents do weather these things," Lichtman said. "The public has always been a tough sell when it comes to scandal."

Pub Date: 2/11/98

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