Toughing it out works for resilient Clinton

Approval: The president rides out political storms with the support of a strong economy and a rather cynical populace.

Trial In The Senate

January 24, 1999|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A year ago, as the president was insisting to a dubious public that he had not had sexual relations with "that woman," even Clinton loyalists were predicting that he might not survive what seemed to be shocking revelations of recklessness and immorality.

Pundits were quick to dust off the incendiary "I-word." Politicians and journalists talked breathlessly of a presidential resignation and a Gore administration.

Today, after a yearlong saga that has yet to come to a close, the president, while indelibly scarred, is standing tall.

Public support of his presidency is soaring. Republicans are searching for a way out of a Senate trial that, short of some dramatic twist, is not going to result in the president's ouster.

And Washington is scratching its head.

What happened? How did Clinton untie himself from the railroad tracks? And why did the public not only let him, but assist him?

"Historians looking back will be mightily puzzled by this," says Boston University historian and Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Dallek. "What they will see is a lot of subterranean motives at work."

To be sure, Clinton, whose resilience and dedication to toughing it out are legendary, is somewhat responsible for how the events of the past year have unfolded.

But Dallek and other historians and political scientists believe the public, deeply cynical and disengaged from Washington, and the Republicans, whose outrage at the president far surpassed the public's, have also played key roles in writing the script.

Ends justify means

Some have pointed to the vigorous economy as the key to the president's survival and the public's strong support for him, a sort of "end justifies the means" argument.

"The Clinton ends -- the economy, jobs, income levels -- seem to justify whatever the personal means," says Roger Morris, the author of biographies of Clinton and Richard Nixon.

"People seem to be saying, `He hasn't done anything that really hurts me.' "

Vanderbilt University presidential expert Erwin Hargrove says that, much like Clinton's renowned ability to "compartmentalize," the public makes a clear distinction between approval of a president's performance and personal admiration for him.

He says the public generally credits and sticks with the president when times are good.

"The only way to shake that is for the crimes to be more severe," Hargrove says. "The nature of the crime itself shaped this.

"If the charges had been more central to the president's work and more clearly public crimes, this would have been a different story."

For instance, Nixon's support stayed strong -- although not nearly as strong as the record-breaking job approval ratings Clinton has enjoyed in the past year -- during a deteriorating economy, and only began to crumble when the evidence of his Watergate transgressions became overwhelming.

But some believe that the pocketbook explanation for Clinton's enduring popularity is only one part of the puzzle.

Morris says the more decisive factor in Clinton's success is the cynicism and indifference of the public.

"There's been a revolution in the public," says Morris. "The disillusionment with the quality of politics and the political process is deeper than it's ever been. And Clinton is the beneficiary of it."

Morris, author of "Partners in Power: The Clintons and Their America," believes the public is so convinced that all of politics is corrupt that "it's not credible anymore to point fingers."

"When one party tries to claim the moral high ground, it rings hollow," he says. "The public has made a fundamental judgment that we're dealing here with a defective class of people."

In fact, he says, it's no wonder that deputy White House counsel Cheryl Mills made more of a splash on the Senate floor last week than the House "prosecutors" did the week before.

"The House managers are at a real disadvantage," says Morris. "They may be the only class of people less highly regarded than Washington lawyers."

Dallek, too, believes that the public's steadfast support of Clinton has been the key to his political survival. But he believes that support does not arise from cynicism as much as from the public's inherent centrism.

"The more I've thought about it, the more I'm convinced that what's operating here is what has operated through most of the country's history: a tradition of moderation, accommodation and consensus," says Dallek.

"People in this country are centrists. They don't like radical behavior. They see this whole impeachment process as radical."

In contrast, he says, Clinton has been able to strike chords that resonate with the political center, as he demonstrated with last week's State of the Union address.

Pollsters and political strategists believe that, in awarding Clinton an astoundingly high approval rating, the public is also expressing its frustration with the media and Republicans -- including independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr -- for their seeming obsession with scandal.

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