David S. Broder
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; A21
Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared on Feb. 18, 1998.
The mail is fascinating these days for the insights it offers into the way the American public is wrestling with the confusing and disturbing information coming out of Washington. You can see why the president's
approval scores have been so high -- and why he still remains in jeopardy.
For the moment at least, hard-core Democrats accept Hillary Clinton's contention that this is a "right-wing conspiracy." A woman from Tennessee writes, "I believe from the beginning Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers were bought and paid for by the Republican Party and the Religious Right. . . . Both women are liars."
Many others, particularly among the boomers and Generation X, bury their doubts about Clinton beneath their deep distaste for self-appointed moral monitors. They write, as a Cincinnati man did, of "inquisitor" Kenneth Starr. And they say, in the words of an upstate New York man:
"Consider this. If all the married persons working in any city or county, in Congress, in any large church, TV network or anywhere else who are playing around with somebody of the opposite sex were fired from their jobs, the unemployment rate would soar."
Half of marriages end in divorce, with adultery a factor in many of the breakups. Other marriages are tested by infidelities but survive. The American people may not condone extramarital affairs, but many of them
admire couples who work through what Clinton has referred to as "troubles." The steadfast support Hillary Clinton has given her husband has built a powerful shield against public condemnation of the president.
Then there are the factors in the national environment that would work in favor of any president. The economy is strong, crime rates and welfare rolls are down. People sensibly ask: Why upset the apple cart?
The nation has a political and emotional investment in any twice-elected president. He is a known quantity. His accusers are people who popped up from nowhere. Their own actions raise doubts. They secretly tape each other, negotiate publicly for legal immunity, seek publicity or book contracts.
The press that echoes their charges is itself deeply suspect in many Americans' eyes. "Do newsmen get pleasure from putting President Clinton through the third degree?" a Wisconsin woman asks. "What power do they have to put him on trial?
Some social critics say the support for Clinton reflects a deeply cynical public ready to abandon important values; to trade ethics for a fat paycheck. I don't agree. What we are seeing is the sensible conservatism of people who want to wait for the facts to emerge before they make up their minds.
My mail suggests the ultimate judgment may be harsh. A Floridian writes: "Bill Clinton's problem is reprehensible and possibly illegal behavior. Extramarital sex merely underlies and accentuates the real problem." And
from Washington state: "Personally, I don't give a damn if the president sleeps with sheep. That truly is between him and his wife. But I do care if he uses a star-struck intern for his personal pleasure. I do care if he lies to the American people."
In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, those interviewed said by a 53 percent to 34 percent margin that they believe Clinton had an affair with Monica Lewinsky. But 60 percent said that even if he did, it is not important to them, and even more rejected an affair as a reason for removing Clinton from office.
More than eight out of 10, however, said that lying about the affair is more serious. So there is an obvious disconnect. If Clinton had an affair, his past denials to the public and to Paula Jones's lawyers are lies. The public, lacking clear proof, has not yet confronted that more serious charge. If proof appears that the president has lied, Clinton may yet face Richard Nixon's fate.
We should not forget the one positive thing that emerged from the long ordeal of Watergate, the certain knowledge that Americans in the 1970s were as deeply committed to the fundamental idea of the Constitution -- the rule of law -- as the men who wrote the charter in the 1780s. It took months to puncture the public's desire to think well of a president they had but recently reelected. But once the facts were clear, Nixon quickly lost his political and popular support.
The rule of law requires any American to give truthful testimony when sworn as a witness in a legal proceeding. If it turns out that President Clinton has not done that, the props of public opinion now supporting him will collapse. I would bet anything that Americans will once again say no one is above the law.