Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / January 27, 1998 / 29 Tevet, 5758
WASHINGTON -- UNTIL NOW, June 1996 was the cruelest month in Bill Clinton's political life.
Clinton was forced to apologize for improperly obtaining FBI files on prominent Republicans, the Senate Whitewater committee concluded that Clinton and his wife had "committed misdeeds," the Paula Jones case was back on the front pages of America's newspapers and an ex-FBI agent published a book claiming that Clinton regularly snuck out of the White House to have trysts at a nearby hotel.
At the end of that month, Clinton, his upper-echelon staff, media consultants and pollsters spread out over the ornate furniture in the Yellow Oval Room in the White House family quarters. A portable screen was set up, and Clinton was shown his latest popularity poll figures.
He was delighted.
"We won the month," adviser George Stephanopoulos said.
It was then that the White House and campaign staff began thinking of Clinton as invulnerable.
A Pew Research Center poll asked people to choose words describing Clinton. The results were: "Good, wishy-washy, OK, dishonest, liar, fair, trying, intelligent, slick, great, honest, crook, leader, two-faced."
The White House was delighted once again. Clinton seemed to be anything you wanted him to be.
Some people loved him, some people hated him, and most people were in-between. But a plurality of Americans decided in two national elections that he deserved to be president no matter what his personal ethics were or had been.
If President Clinton has any skill in great abundance, it is his ability to connect to ordinary people, to convince them he shares their experiences, their pain, their desires, their goals. The "Oprah effect," some call it.
He who lives by Oprah, however, can die by Oprah.
To many Americans, Clinton is not some distant political figure but almost a family acquaintance. So the question today is not just whether Clinton has engaged in misdeeds and possible crimes by allegedly having an affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and then allegedly urging her to lie about it but whether he has betrayed the trust and even the friendship of the American people.
In the relatively recent past, the sex lives of presidents were the subject only of gossip and whispers. Clinton's sex life, however, has been the subject of late-night TV for years. In an era in which, according to one poll, 40 percent of people under 30 years of age get their information about presidential politics from late-night comedy, Clinton's image has been that of an insatiable womanizer.
"Clinton has this race sewed up unless there is a big scandal by November," David Letterman said during the last presidential campaign. "Like if Clinton is caught in bed with his wife."
Such jokes seemed to immunize Clinton from real political damage. If his behavior was the subject of late-night humor, some voters felt, how serious could it be?
Clinton seemed to join in the ribbing. In February 1994, while talking to a group of autoworkers in Shreveport, La., he joked about a pickup truck he owned in the '70s, saying, "It was a real sort of Southern deal. I had Astroturf in the back. You don't want to know why, but I did."
Today, the late-night jokes are the same. "After five years of investigating and $35 million, Kenneth Starr has found the smoking gun," Jay Leno said Thursday night, "and it's apparently in President Clinton's pants."
What is different this time, however, is that Clinton is being accused of sexual and criminal misdeeds that allegedly occurred during his presidency. "(Gennifer) Flowers, Jones, those accusations were when he was governor," one young White House aide said. "We thought, well, if those happened at all, it was the past, and he would never do it as president. But now, well, this is new ground for everybody. People around here feel a little shaky."
While American presidents want to be known as "just folks," they also embody the hopes, dreams and ideals of the nation. They are looked up to -- or at least they used to be.
In October 1996, a poll conducted for the Knight-Ridder newspapers showed that nearly two-thirds of those responding would not want their child to become president. They preferred their children to become college professors, doctors, ministers, carpenters, athletes, lawyers, governors or mayors rather than the chief executive of the United States. The parents ranked only one job lower than that of president: movie star.
The media have played a role in removing presidents from their pedestals. Watergate helped persuade journalists that presidential character could be as important as presidential competency, and rather than keeping the private lives of presidents to themselves, the media now felt they had a responsibility to publish stories about it.
But the White House is hoping the American people reserve judgment for at least several more days, if not weeks, about how they feel about the character of this president and their relationship with him.
"As near as we can tell, people have not made a judgment yet," White House press secretary Mike McCurry told me over the weekend. "They see Bill Clinton doing his job and working for them. They will want to know what the truth is and what the explanation is. And, over time, they are going to get
1/22/98: Bimbo eruptions past and present