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NEWS ANALYSIS : Clinton Dogged by Issue He Invoked: Character : Presidency: Underlying Whitewater is the question of values that he raised himself as a campaign slogan.


WASHINGTON — Underlying the controversy over the legal rights and wrongs of the Whitewater controversy that is swirling around the Clinton presidency is a more fundamental political struggle over character, values and the allegiance of the middle class.

President Clinton's supporters blame reckless journalists and sore-loser Republicans for much of the Whitewater furor. "Republicans have lost some of their old reliable issues," such as welfare and crime, says Democratic National Chairman David Wilhelm. "So in order to slow the President down and stop the progress, they've latched on to Whitewater."

But some analysts contend that Clinton brought the problem on himself by stressing traditional middle-class values during his campaign and his presidency even though the evidence suggests that he and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton have not always conformed to those standards. The First Lady recently felt compelled to address criticism of her own conduct in an unprecedented televised press conference that lasted more than an hour but nevertheless, critics maintain, left some questions unanswered.

The Whitewater allegations--that the Clintons enjoyed improper financial benefits from their investment in an Arkansas resort because of Clinton's position as governor--are only part of the equation.

Whitewater aside, last month brought a White House admission that the Clintons had failed to report taxable profit on a commodities market deal. And the President continues to be dogged by reports that Arkansas state troopers ferried him to assignations with women while he was governor. As a result, Clinton's presidency now presents an ironic and, some believe, ominous contrast.

"Clinton has probably suffered more from character issues than any modern President," says Everett Carll Ladd, director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. "Yet it's hard to find a President who in his public utterances has pushed more of the buttons on character and values than he has."

At nearly every opportunity, Clinton presents himself as the champion of middle-class people "who play by the rules," a phrase right out of his pollster's lexicon. As a self-proclaimed "different kind of Democrat," he frequently uses religious assemblages as forums, stresses religious themes and deplores how far national life has strayed from the influence of the Almighty.

"I think God wants us to sit down and talk to one another and see what values we share and see how we can put them inside the millions and millions of Americans who are living in chaos," Clinton told fellow Yale Law School alumni last fall.

Clemson University political scientist Charles Dunn, editor of the anthology "American Political Theology," says of Clinton: "He may well be the greatest practitioner of civil religion and of public theology of any President we've ever had."

William J. Bennett, author of the best-selling "The Book of Virtues" and a potential Republican rival of Clinton's for the presidency in 1996, says: "He very much wants to be a leader in moral terms. He thinks of the pantheon of great American presidents and wants to be in their company and knows that moral leadership is part of that.

"As he is drawn to it, he speaks of it," Bennett says. And he warns: "As he speaks of it, he will be judged."

On occasion Clinton seems to contradict himself with his own words. Feb. 3, addressing inner-city junior high school students here, the President made a moving plea for sexual restraint and family values, stressing that sex is not "sport" but a "solemn responsibility."

But five days later, addressing auto workers in Shreveport, La., Clinton recalled owning a pickup truck that he carpeted with Astroturf in the bed. Amid laughter from the audience, Clinton added: "You don't want to know why, but I did."

Ten days after that he tried to explain away the prurient implication of that remark. "I carried my luggage back there. It wasn't for what everybody thought it was for when I made the comment, I can tell you that."

Clinton's supporters say that his frequently stated concern for values, far from being a cynical attempt to manipulate the electorate, reflects deeply held beliefs dating to his Southern Baptist childhood. Besides, they argue, nearly all the complaints about Clinton's behavior stem from his years in Arkansas and are not relevant to his presidency.

"What we tried to do and what Clinton tried to do with us was articulate values which were the underpinning of a public agenda," says Al From, head of the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist group that Clinton used as a springboard for his presidential candidacy. "I think he's changed the agenda dramatically in the way he's conducted his office. I'm not going to talk about his personal conduct."

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