On Clinton, Two Faces of a Nation
By Joel Achenbach
The capital has never seemed more disconnected from the hinterlands. The president and first lady have their highest approval ratings even as, within the Washington establishment, they are widely viewed with incredulity. Normally the great division in Washington is between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals. Now it's between here and there.
The gap in attitudes has caused much soul-searching and hand-wringing. Are the American people blind? Are they lapsing into some kind of amoral funk? Can people really be that complacent about an alleged affair between a president and a 21-year-old intern and the possible baldfaced lies that followed?
Or could it be that the public has taken the right course, reserving judgment, waiting for more information? Are the people showing a moral sophistication that the Washington establishment lacks? Are those inside the Beltway too quick to assign guilt, and too stodgy and inflexible in their behavioral codes?
"This is a sad commentary," said Bill Canfield, a Republican lawyer and former senior staff counsel on the Senate Ethics Committee. "It seems that people are saying that as long as he's managing the country okay, the moral leadership takes second place. I think personally that sends a terrible signal to the young people in our country."
The Great Disconnect has become apparent since the middle of the week. Ninety percent of the callers to NBC News last week complained about excessive coverage of the scandal. The president's approval ratings spiked upward after his policy-intensive State of the Union address. It appeared that the nation, like the first family, had "compartmentalized" the allegations -- had placed them in the proverbial little box that can be examined independently of Clinton's effectiveness as president.
To many people in Washington that little box now seems cavernous. It has been hard to find a single person outside the West Wing and inside the Beltway who thinks the president is telling the truth about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The reigning wisdom on political talk shows is that even the president's closest advisers don't believe him. The first lady is presumed to have some kind of blind-eye arrangement with her husband.
The Republicans in recent days have read the poll numbers and gone on the counterattack. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has thundered that honesty and trust and decency do matter in public life. Conservative Republican William Bennett, author of "The Book of Virtues," said that if more evidence surfaces that incriminates the president, and the public still approves of him, "then we've been lowered down. Then he ain't the only problem." The peculiar geography of outrage -- the here-and-there situation -- may have several causes, foremost a willingness of the American people to suspend judgment. Polling this past weekend by The Washington Post indicates that most Americans do take very seriously the allegation that the president may have lied under oath about Lewinsky. A majority said he should resign if that's the case, and that if he doesn't he should be impeached. That this attitude goes hand in hand with high approval ratings may indicate that people are giving Clinton the presumption of innocence. Or it may be that the president's approval rating is the public's way of disapproving of the attack culture of Washington.
It's certainly true that Washington can be a tough town. There is a kind of glee when prominent careers are on the verge of immolation. Vince Foster's final, despairing statement echoes through the capital: Here, ruining people is considered sport. At the very least this is a place where there is little survival value in having a measured judgment or a hesitant opinion. You don't get invited on "Meet the Press" or "Crossfire" if you're not willing to declare who's right and who's wrong.
When the scandal first broke it was widely asserted that Clinton might be forced to resign in a matter of days. If he was lying, said former senior White House staffer George Stephanopoulos, then he was finished. A New York newspaper flew one of its Moscow correspondents back to Washington to help cover the possible transition of power. The expectation of a dramatic end to the Clinton presidency was built around the belief that certain actions are politically fatal. Sex with an intern by itself would seemingly be a mortal blow. People wondered: How could Clinton possibly wiggle out of this one?
Sen. Bob Packwood was bounced from the Senate for misbehavior that centered on allegedly forceful and clumsy sexual passes at women who worked for him. Gary Hart had to drop from the presidential race after a dalliance at his Capitol Hill home with a woman not his wife. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas went through a humiliating confirmation hearing because he allegedly made passes at a subordinate and made crude comments in her presence. These and other cases created the unwritten rules about what can and cannot be survived in a political scandal.
Now the question is whether the rules have changed, or if they are simply different for a president with two elections under his belt. Maybe for Clinton the standards are lower.
A parlor game in the past week and a half has been identifying which of the various allegations against the president are the most serious. Many conversations in the capital begin with "The worst part of it is . . ." For Bennett, the alleged relationship with the intern is not the worst charge. Nor is the allegation that Clinton lied about it under oath when deposed in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit (the allegation that has most worried the American people, according to polls). Nor is the suspicion that Clinton friend Vernon Jordan arranged a job for Lewinsky in exchange for an affidavit saying there was no improper relationship. Bennett said the greatest transgression would be if Clinton lied into the cameras last Tuesday when he gave his most forceful and angry denial of wrongdoing.
"The worst thing, if this stuff is true, is the finger in the air saying 'I want the American people to listen to me, I did not do this.' . . . That's a straight lie to the American people," Bennett said. "If he's telling the truth, he's fine. If he's not, he's finished. It's a violation of trust to 260 million people."
The alleged relationship itself sticks in the craw of many people. Unlike most of America, Washington is full of interns. There are unambiguous codes of conduct about how these young people are treated. "We have so many interns in our offices up here and we know how wide-eyed and vulnerable these women are," said one senior Democratic staffer. "You don't touch."
That the public doesn't seem to care that much, he said, "is insane. It seems to be the biggest reversal of public opinion on a topic that obsessed us that I've ever seen."
In the Bible Belt, the treatment of an intern may not raise as much concern as the allegation of adultery. Mark Muesse, who teaches the course "Religion and Sexuality" at Rhodes College, a Presbyterian school in Memphis, said his students believe that it would be a serious problem if the president broke a marital vow. But they also said it shouldn't necessarily cause him to relinquish office.
"What would happen if he and Hillary had some kind of arrangement in which they allowed satellite arrangements in their marriage, what they call open marriage?" Muesse asked. Most of his students thought that would make the situation forgivable.
Susan Raskin, who runs a center in Bethesda specializing in counseling women through "midlife development," said many of her friends and clients are upset about the president's alleged relationship with a much younger woman. The so-called Jennifer Syndrome -- older men taking up with women a generation younger -- hits a raw nerve for many women in their forties and fifties. But Raskin said that despite all this, there is anger at the media for how they have covered the case.
"We're just tired of not knowing what's going on in the world because this man and his actions are taking up Pages 1 through 50," she said.
One thing people in the heartland may not realize is that, inside the Beltway, most public officials consider themselves honest. For all the negative press about how Washington works, a person's word is still considered a valuable currency. And though there may be lustful behavior and midnight liaisons, even they are supposed to be conducted with some level of discretion. Washington doesn't view itself as a den of thieves and liars and scumbags.
And yet the public doesn't trust the place, and hasn't for decades. One well-known Democrat noted that only recently has faith in government institutions shown a slight increase. This scandal may imperil that, he said.
The poll numbers astonish him. They reminded him of something George Bernard Shaw once said: Democracy is the form of government in which people get exactly what they deserve.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company