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Clinton's Woes Aren't Playing Big in Peoria

By Jon Jeter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 31, 1998; Page A12

PEORIA, Ill., Jan. 30—Washington may be obsessed with Monica Lewinsky and the tales of sex, scandal, power and betrayal in which she stars. But in Peoria, things play differently.

"Frankly, I think it's stupid," said Don Saunders, parked on a bar stool at the Pere Marquette, a 70-year-old hotel here. "Clinton hasn't done anything that any number of American males haven't done. They ought to leave the man alone. I think there are bigger issues to worry about in the world than whether someone is having sex with someone they shouldn't be."

Across the street, at the Twin Towers Barber Shop, the soap opera that is Washington these days is the topic of conversation, but few here seem to take it seriously. "It's starting to wane," said Steve Bainter, a barber and co-owner of the shop. "But it has been fun -- the guy has provided us with a lot of entertainment."

The leak-a-day allegations that President Clinton had an affair with a former White House intern and exhorted her to lie about it are the stuff of mild irritation and racy jokes in this river town in central Illinois. What passes for high political drama in Washington is vaudevillian in the barbershops, luncheonettes, taverns and pool halls that line Main Street.

"Why does Bill Clinton wear boxers?" asked Kevin Sullivan, a defense attorney here. "They keep his ankles warm."

Even in this heavily Republican enclave, people say the biggest White House crisis since Watergate is viewed as entertaining, but not terribly consequential to daily life. "What it comes down to, I think, is that Peoria is a hell of a lot more like the rest of the country than Washington is," said Bainter.

In some respects, that may be true. National opinion polls show Clinton's popularity has rarely been higher. But they also show many people feel the charges leveled against Clinton would be serious if proved true.

In the meantime, random conversations demonstrate that what matters in Peoria are more down-to-earth concerns. Labor negotiations with the big employer in town, Caterpillar, are scheduled to resume next week. Some Peoria residents are preoccupied with that. Others are looking forward to the annual statewide convention for high school music teachers and students taking place here. Planting season -- corns and beans mostly -- which begins in March, is also on the minds of many.

Quite a few people here say they are angrier and more disappointed with the mass media than they have ever been with Clinton.

"[They] have gone into some vacuous place," said Jim Hafele, a defense attorney here, who voted for Clinton in 1992, but switched to Ross Perot in 1996. "I turn off the television every chance I get because I just don't want to see this stuff anymore."

Cathy Ryan, a bartender at the Rendezvous bar at the Pere Marquette hotel, said that the scandal seemed to be on everyone's mind when the revelations first surfaced nearly two weeks ago. "But I think pretty much everyone here is done with it now," she added. "We're just waiting for them to be done with it in Washington at this point."

Whether the White House's deployment of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Paul Begala, James Carville and other Clinton aides to defend the president has been an effective strategy is not an issue here. Whether Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the speaker of the House, or other Republicans should deliver more partisan blows to derail Clinton's presidency is of little consequence here. Lawyers in Peoria are more likely to be absorbed with probate or divorce cases than presidential public relations. Lobbyists here work in Springfield, the state capital. Any pundits are vacationing. Washington is a strange and distant place.

"Does anybody do any real work there?" said Saunders, a manager at one of a half-dozen Caterpillar plants in the area.

"I mean, the last time I really got mad at the president it was Johnson, when he picked up that dog by his ears," added Saunders, a lifelong dog-owner, referring to a controversial photograph of the president lifting a dog in roughhouse fashion. "This is kind of like Chappaquiddick to us. It's sad for the folks involved, but no one here can see how it makes them any difference."

Neither do people here buy the explanation that the allegations against Clinton are important because it is possible that he perjured himself, or obstructed justice if he urged Lewinsky to lie. It is not lost on Peorians that it was the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit that generated the latest accusations and hints of criminal charges. But that, too, strikes people here as a private matter for the president to work through without the help of Sam Donaldson or Cokie Roberts.

"What the president does in his extra time is his own business," said Saunders. "I would hate for my boss to follow me around in my extra time looking for dirt. Not that he'd find anything illegal or immoral, but I'd hate for him to be following me around."

Leaning over a video game at the Dutchman's cafe on Main Street, Jeff Clark agreed.

"I think it's getting kind of overplayed. I don't think his sex life has anything to do with how he's running the country" said Clark, a deliveryman. "And I think he's done a pretty good job so far."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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