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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

Doubts About Clinton's Personal Integrity Reach Critical Mass

Character: Six years ago, the public could dismiss allegations of affairs before his election as president. But that was then; this is now.

January 24, 1998|ROBERT SHOGAN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

NEW YORK — "The people whose character is really an issue are those who would divert the attention of the people and divide the country we love," Bill Clinton declared six years ago this winter as he ran for president and his character first came under attack on the national political stage.

And ever since, Clinton has used much the same argument--along with indignant denials--to shield himself from the intermittent firestorms of criticism.

But now, as he faces the most serious character-related charge of his career--that he sought to cover up an affair with a young White House intern--the cumulative toll taken on his credibility by all these previous controversies escalates the peril to his presidency.

In a legal sense, as independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr pointed out this week, Clinton is entitled to the presumption of innocence. But in political terms, analysts question whether the public will any longer give him the benefit of the doubt.

"First you had Gennifer [Flowers], then you had Paula [Corbin Jones], now you have Monica [S. Lewinsky]," said Ohio University presidential scholar Alonzo Hamby, referring to the three most notorious cases of alleged sexual misbehavior by Clinton. "It's gotten to the point where people are asking themselves, 'How can we trust this guy?' "

Starr was appointed to look into another reputed scandal, the Whitewater affair, centering on a real estate deal the president and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton became involved in when he was still attorney general of Arkansas.

As a result of these and other allegations, Clinton's rating for integrity and trust has generally been relatively low compared to other politicians.

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In a Gallup Poll last year, Americans who were asked to compare Clinton's ethical standards to other recent presidents rated Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Jimmy Carter ahead of Clinton by margins of about 2 to 1 or better. Indeed, only Richard Nixon, who resigned in disgrace because of the Watergate scandal, trailed Clinton in this regard.

So how did Clinton win two presidential elections? Part of the answer, according to Everett C. Ladd, director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, is that while the public did not necessarily believe his denials, they accepted his argument that the charges about his personal conduct had nothing to do with his presidency.

"Americans for some reason believe that the distinction between a president's personal conduct on one side and things that are pertinent to his public performance is one that should be taken seriously," Ladd said.

And both the Clintons have done all they could to play off that belief. As the womanizing allegations--sparked by Flower's assertion of a 12-year affair with Clinton--threatened to derail his presidential hopes in the 1992 New Hampshire primary campaign, Hillary Clinton asked the voters of the then-economically stricken state: "Is anything about our marriage as important to the people of New Hampshire as whether or not they will have a chance to keep their own families together?"

Analysts say one reason the current furor will be harder for Clinton to withstand than past controversies is that the alleged misconduct took place in the White House, while he was president. Most of the other allegations against him were linked to his past in Arkansas and were easier to dismiss as irrelevant to his performance as chief executive.

Another factor that makes Clinton's alleged dalliance with Lewinsky seem particularly unsavory, and potentially disastrous, is the intern's tender age, according to the analysts. They speculate that should the preponderance of evidence indicate the affair did occur, many Americans who were willing to overlook extramarital relationships between mature adults will find it harder to tolerate a romance between a middle-age man and a woman not much older than his own daughter.

In this environment, Clinton's public standing can't help but suffer, the analysts say. "I think he will be permanently branded as a rogue," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, even though he believes Clinton will escape a formal legal judgment.

"People don't want him convicted of anything," Sabato said. Investigators would have to come up with "a lot of evidence against the president" to alter that view.

But Sabato added: "I think whatever respect people have for him will be diminished. I think the odds are in favor of his being politically crippled."

George Edwards, director of the Center for the Study of the Presidency at Texas A&M University, agrees: "He's not going to be able to set the agenda with his State of the Union speech" scheduled for Tuesday, Edwards said. "Everything he says is going to be interpreted through this story."

Also to Clinton's disadvantage is the difference in the political landscape. When the charges of womanizing surfaced during Clinton's first campaign for president, "voters shrugged them off because they wanted to get rid of Bush," said Sabato.

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But in Clinton's second term, "there is no compelling political reason" to stand by him, Sabato said, especially with the relatively untarnished Vice President Al Gore waiting in the wings.

"Now the political choice is not between Clinton and Bush, but between Clinton and Gore," Sabato said.

In these circumstances, Democrats may be slower to rally around Clinton than they have been in the past when they viewed their political fortunes as tied to his. Now, unless the current allegations are rapidly dispelled, analysts say that for Democrats, Clinton will become a problem to which Gore is the only solution.

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