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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

Clinton's Secret to Survival: Will

Character: President responds well under pressure, foes say. That leads to a reluctance to attack him now, and a belief that he will stay in office.

January 28, 1998|ROBERT SHOGAN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

NEW YORK — In the struggle for survival touched off by his latest crisis of character, President Clinton has an advantage over the rest of the political world--he's more determined to stay in office than anyone else is to get him out.

And for this reason, the view is increasingly gaining hold among political professionals and scholars that the president will withstand this challenge.

"He has the will to withstand the attacks," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a leader of the Republican right-wing that First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton accused on Tuesday of "fomenting a conspiracy" to oust her husband.

Commenting on the allegations swirling around Clinton that he had an affair with a young White House staff member and then tried to cover it up, Keene asserted: "Most people are willing to say that the guy is really a sleaze."

But he added: "They know trying to get him out [of office] would involve a truly smarmy fight. And that is something they don't want any part of."

The removal of a president before his term ends has never been easy, and was never meant to be. So far, only one president, Richard Nixon, has been forced from office under the cloud of impeachment.

At the time, Keene was an aide to Sen. James Buckley of New York, a staunch conservative who was one of the first prominent Republicans to call for Nixon's resignation. Buckley did so, Keene recalled, because he asked himself the question: "Doesn't America deserve better?" But Buckley's early call for Nixon to step down angered many of his Republican supporters and helped cost him his Senate seat.

Keene complains that hardly any politicians are willing to act out of conscience now, which is why he believes Clinton will survive.

If other politicians are cautious about attacking Clinton, there is good reason for it, based on the president's track record for dealing with previous personal controversies.

Again and again, he has demonstrated an iron resolve to carry on. And this, combined with his skill at communicating, makes him a formidable antagonist.

"There is nobody currently in public life as glib and as articulate and persuasive as he is," said University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles Jones. "He's damn near demonic."

Referring to previous Republican efforts to attack Clinton's character in the presidential campaigns of 1992 and 1996, Jones said: "How many times do you try something that isn't working? Where it was tried, [Clinton and his aides] had a very efficient response operation working, complaining about his being smeared. So this sort of attack ends up not being effective."

Clinton first demonstrated his resiliency in his home state of Arkansas, when he bounced back from a wounding defeat in his gubernatorial reelection bid in 1980 to win back the governor's mansion two years later. The resurrection put him on the long road to the White House.

Ten years later, after building early momentum in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, he suddenly faced a one-two punch that would have proved lethal to most politicians--charges of womanizing (in this case, lodged by former nightclub singer Gennifer Flowers) and dodging the draft during the Vietnam War.

The barrage of bad press threatened to destroy his presidential hopes in the New Hampshire primary; polls showed his support plummeting. He responded with two weeks of nonstop campaigning--by bus and by plane, in walking tours and on television call-in shows--to regain voters' support and trust.

And after coming in second in that primary, he stole much of the glory from the victor, former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, by getting on national television first and proclaiming himself "the comeback kid."

Still, allegations of misconduct from his past continued to dog him during the campaign. In a climactic debate on the eve of the critical Illinois primary, former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. accused Hillary Rodham Clinton of a conflict of interest because of her work as a private attorney in Little Rock, Ark., while her husband served as governor. Ignoring the specifics of the charges, Clinton denounced Brown.

"Let me tell you something, Jerry," Clinton said, shaking his finger in anger at Brown. "I don't care what you say about me. But you ought to be ashamed of yourself for jumping on my wife."

That counterattack assured Clinton of victory in the debate and in the primary vote. And it was the kind of performance that has left his potential foes gunshy even today of taking on Clinton when his character is challenged.

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