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PERSPECTIVE ON POLITICS

Don't Count Them Out Yet

Alatorre and Clinton both fell victim to weakness, but their strengths may yet help them to prevail.

October 04, 1998|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

I had hoped to be the only columnist in this country who would not write about Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky and what their sad little affair means to the Republic.

By and large, I intend to keep that pledge, for my chief topic here is a controversial local pol--Los Angeles Councilman Richard Alatorre. But Alatorre's mounting legal and political problems, not to mention his all-too-human frailties, keep reminding me of Clinton.

Clinton's political enemies, of course, claim his dalliance with a White House intern is reflective of deeper character flaws that call into question his right to remain in office. They would use a sordid little sex scandal as an opening to investigate other alleged abuses of the public trust in the Clinton White House.

Alatorre's critics point to his admitted abuse of cocaine and alcohol in the past, and the results of a recent court-ordered drug test that showed he may still be abusing drugs as evidence of a character flaw and deeper problems with his performance in office. He is under investigation on several fronts for allegedly steering lucrative government contracts to friends and political contributors.

Having character weaknesses and being investigated are just the start of things the two men may have in common.

Both are highly skilled career politicians who achieved more than was ever expected of them. Clinton rose from an up-and-down career in Arkansas state politics to two terms in the White House. Alatorre came up from the city's tough Eastside barrio to become a key state legislator, then a powerful player in City Hall who was even touted as a future mayor.

Both men crafted political legacies that will live after the controversy that surrounds them now is forgotten. Clinton can take credit for ending the federal budget deficit. Alatorre engineered two reapportionments that laid the groundwork for the election of many other Latinos to state and local offices. Even a few of Alatorre's political enemies owe their safe districts to lines he drew using 1980 and 1990 census data.

Speaking of political enemies, both men have plenty--and they are notoriously zealous enemies at that. This leads both Clinton and Alatorre to ascribe many of their political problems to conspiracies hatched by their foes, aided and abetted by the news media, ever eager to pounce on even the whiff of scandal.

Yet it is also clear that both Clinton and Alatorre are at times their own worst enemies. Even knowing they are under close and constant scrutiny, both continually succumbed to personal weaknesses: Clinton to an apparently compulsive need to pursue women; Alatorre to cocaine abuse.

Now these addictions have led both men into the worst scandals of their careers--scandals made all the more painful because they mix personal affairs with politics. So on top of everything else, Clinton's womanizing also has hurt the family he loves. And cocaine use last week cost Alatorre an adopted daughter he cherishes.

That happened when a local judge, ruling in a nasty child custody case, stripped the councilman of guardianship of his 10-year-old niece after Alatorre failed a surprise drug test. Alatorre and his wife Angie adopted the girl two years ago, after her natural mother, Angie Alatorre's sister, died. But the Alatorres' custody is being challenged by the girl's natural father, a long-time political activist who is also one of Alatorre's chief political foes.

Alatorre will challenge the accuracy of the drug test, according to his attorney. But meantime the saddest thing about the Alatorre case, as with Clinton's affair, is that such a public airing of private matters has embarrassed innocent parties--in both cases a loyal wife and a loving daughter.

Those of us in the news media who have covered these painful stories can defend our performance by claiming we are only doing our jobs. There are, after all, public issues involved.

But a discomforting question arises: Why is so much personal material being leaked to us? I worry that one answer may be that the investigators probing both men's public affairs fear that they cannot convict them, so they have opted to try to force them from office through personal humiliation.

If that is the case, I don't expect Alatorre to resign from office any more than Clinton will.

Clinton's decision on whether to surrender the presidency will be based not on what we pundits say, but on how next November's congressional elections turn out. Impeachment being fundamentally a political decision, Clinton knows that a Republican-dominated Congress will come after him while a Democratic Congress, or even a narrowly divided one, probably won't. In the meantime, he takes solace in polls that give him high job ratings despite the Lewinsky scandal.

Similarly, Alatorre will decide his future based not on what journalists like me write, but on whether he thinks he can be reelected next April, when he is up for his final four-year term on the council.

Anyone who thinks Alatorre's recent problems have fatally wounded him should remember that he represents the same 14th Council District that consistently reelected his predecessor, Art Snyder, for a dozen years despite many similar scandals and personal problems.

Snyder consistently won for the same reason Alatorre does: He delivered services to his constitutents, so they liked him even if voters in the rest of the city considered him a scoundrel.

Don't be surprised if Alatorre shows the same knack for political survival--and the same goes for Bill Clinton.

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