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Will Clinton Ever Get Out of the Doghouse?

February 19, 2001|LYNN SMITH and J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

He survived scandal, impeachment, the loss of Congress and more, but when he left office, former President Clinton rode tall in the saddle, waving a figurative white hat to cheering throngs. Though 70% of Americans gave him their approval, the applause quickly gave way to the familiar clatter of falling scenery. Then Clinton was on the ground again, grinning sheepishly amid the rubble of his own destruction.

Clinton isn't the first powerful leader to watch his fortunes repeatedly soar and plummet. Fame and disgrace often go hand in hand, a phenomenon not confined to American political figures. Foreign leaders--even royalty--are subject to the vagaries of public approval and opprobrium. And the world of business is not immune either. The good news, say historians, is that almost everyone can bounce back, especially popular presidents.

"There is no such thing as straight forward linear success . . . at least with careers of major magnitude," said Martin Duberman, historian at City University of New York. "When you're on the world stage, you're subject to all kinds of shifts in cultural taste, to maneuvers of people you haven't even met. It's inescapable a major career will have its highs and lows."

In a particularly dramatic fashion, Israel's former general Ariel Sharon, who was accused of condoning the 1982 slaughter of Palestinians in two refugee camps in Lebanon, was restored to favor the week before last when he was elected prime minister. Disgraced President Nixon helped rehabilitate himself by writing books in the years after he resigned under threat of impeachment. Even Hollywood executives such as Michael Ovitz can turn up after a year of failure with a stock and cash package worth $130 million . . . and a new business plan.

It seems as if there are no ashes deep enough to bury a determined phoenix. But that doesn't make the fall from grace any easier.

Clinton's has been unusually rough. Even some friends joined the chorus of public disgust as one revelation followed another. First, there was the specter of a taxpayer-funded luxury office in midtown Manhattan, then the missing White House flatware and furniture. Perhaps most unsettling: Clinton's pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich and release of Los Angeles cocaine dealer Carlos Vignali from federal prison.

Response was swift from both the private and public sector. Investors protested vehemently over Clinton's appearance at a Morgan Stanley Dean Witter conference in Florida earlier this month for a fee reportedly exceeding $100,000. The protest prompted a mea culpa by the financial giant's CEO and led to the cancellation of at least one other high-priced appearance by the former president.

An FBI investigation and congressional hearings were launched to see whether or not Rich bought his pardon.

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Clinton's first few weeks out of office have been, according to former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, "one of the messiest divorces from America you could possibly imagine."

A frenzy of attacks on his "tacky" and "greedy" conduct grew to include reports that the Clinton staffers had removed letter "w" from White House computer keyboards. Newspapers such as the New York Post ran humorous polls asking readers what type of work would suit citizen Clinton best. More than a third chose "doorman at Scores (a famous New York topless bar)," 21% "talk show host," 17% each for "McDonald's spokesman" and "dog trainer" and 7% for "pardons commissioner."

Criticism snowballed to include commentators such as Daniel Schorr, who, though "usually averse to pounding on someone who is being universally condemned," nevertheless said on National Public Radio that "if ever anybody warranted demonization, it's Bill Clinton for the pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich." Clinton said the uproar bewildered him. But as a student of history, perhaps he should have expected it. After all, historians say, other presidents also have left office under a cloud. George Bush was criticized for pardoning former colleagues and Iran-Contra defendants; Reagan came under fire after accepting $2 million for a week of speeches in Japan; Truman left office as a failure amid the stirrings of the Cold War and McCarthyism. Even Eisenhower, though popular, was seen as an "old man, out of step with the times," said author and historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony.

Attacks are par for the course for any long-term president, he said. "Harry Truman always said Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt had the good sense to know when to die," Anthony said. Both presidents died in office.

All of the former presidents returned to public favor within a few years, he said.

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