By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, February 3, 1998; 12:00 AM
DAVOS, SWITZERLAND -- One of the risks of foreign travel for an American nowadays is having to endure lectures from Europeans and others about how, Monsieur, we Yanks are all hung up over sex. At a single luncheon discussion here at the World Economic Forum, I and other Americans were berated by a Frenchman, an Israeli and, would you believe, a Brit. I oft replied, pointing to the polls, that I did not know what country they were talking about.
Indeed, much of America seems high on escargot. We have out-Frenched even the French when it comes to our nonchalance regarding whether President Clinton had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. By the weekend, news had reached this Alpine village that Clinton had achieved a personal best in approval ratings. The Washington Post, in a typical finding, gave him a 67.
The polling data sent some of the many American politicians here into fits of head-scratching. One said that if the numbers were correct then he did not know his country at all. Another pronounced them instantly irrelevant, of no long-term meaning. I come down, as a wise person must from time to time, somewhere in the middle. I think the polling data mean quite a bit but may be irrelevant to the outcome.
For those of us made more and more uncomfortable in recent years about politicians -- indeed, public figures of all kinds -- being held accountable for their private lives, the polls suggest we have picked up quite a few allies. A Time magazine poll, for instance, reports that 61 percent of respondents would not want Clinton to resign simply if he had an affair with Lewinsky.
How terrific! Here are landslide majorities of Americans distinguishing between private affairs and public ones and, possibly, concluding that not every sexual relationship in the workplace amounts to harassment. Still, we would all have to be terminally naive not to appreciate what any White House intern must -- that just saying yes might be a good career move.
What's more, the public is giving the media a bit of a thrashing. Normally, I have my problems with anti-media pogroms, but in this case some of us have had it coming. The very Time magazine I cited for its polling, essentially quoted street language in its reportage that I thought I would never see in a mainstream American publication.
Time, though, is not alone. Many a news organization crossed a line of decency or journalistic fair practice. As is its wont, the public uses the term media to castigate us all -- the good, the bad and the mediocre. At any rate, some 72 percent of Time's respondents thought the media have gone too far on this story.
I cheer also at the American public's evident unease over Ken Starr's long march through endless Arkansas real estate shenanigans, which culminated -- if, indeed, it has culminated at all -- in the current investigation of the president. Sixty percent of Time's respondents don't like Starr poking around in Clinton's sex life.
So it seems that Clinton's high standing in the polls is composed of an anti-media backlash, a repugnance at Starr's methods and, of course, a general desire not to rock the boat. After all, unemployment is down, the stock market is up and the budget is balanced. All seems right with the world.
In time, though, these factors will come to seem less and less important. When that happens, Americans may be forced to concentrate on the basic matter of honesty -- whether Clinton lied first in his deposition given to Paula Jones's lawyer and, second, to the American people. That heated assertion of innocence -- "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky" -- was a spousal moment after which nothing can ever be the same. It had better be the truth.
More important is the matter of the law. No one, least of all presidents, can take it upon themselves to decide which laws they will honor and which they will break. Whatever the reason for a lie, if it is perjury then it cannot be easily dismissed. For a president, it is a violation of his oath, a secular sin.
This is where, privately and individually, the sneering Europeans said they understood. America is a nation of laws, not men. This is what has long made America different from other nations. The real scandal of the present scandal is how it is still misperceived. It is no longer about sex. It is about law.