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The public seems able to separate President Clinton's job performance from allegations about his behavior. (AP file photo)

Willey's Story Gets a Shrug From Public

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 19, 1998; Page A01

Scott Saxe, a 38-year-old pharmacy technician from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., hardly hesitated when asked what he thought of Kathleen E. Willey's charge that President Clinton made an unwanted sexual advance on her near the Oval Office. "Maybe there is sexual harassment," he said, "but it is negligible considering what he has done for the country."

In New York City, Edwin Diaz, 27, working the counter at the New Way Market, said he had seen and read reports of Willey's appearance on CBS's "60 Minutes" Sunday night. "I don't know what to think," he said. "He is doing his job and if he did it, it's not our problem. It is his life. He could have done it, but he has a lot of enemies that don't want him as president."

In Los Angeles, Susan Hanson, 35, was celebrating St. Patrick's Day when she was asked about Willey's accusations. "It's a he-said-she-said situation," said Hanson, who writes for a university alumni association. "I have no doubt that Clinton is a philanderer, but how many philanderers have been in the White House but were still great?" A moment later she added, "Do I think it's important to the country? No."

Willey's interview shook up the White House and produced another spike of media analysis about the implications for Clinton's presidency. But the public reaction, measured by overnight polls, showed little change in attitudes toward the president. Do people simply not care? Is Clinton bulletproof? Or do the polling results mask a more complicated set of public conclusions about the president's behavior?

Experts on public opinion say it may be too soon to draw any conclusions about the impact of Willey's charges. But they also say the accusations from a witness that even the president's supporters acknowledge appeared to be credible do not represent something so dramatically different from charges leveled at Clinton over the years that they could instantly change attitudes.

"If this were a stock, you would say the market has already discounted this information," said GOP pollster Whit Ayres of Atlanta. "The interview provided relatively little new information. What it provided was a large measure of credibility behind existing charges. I'm not willing to conclude yet that the Willey interview had little or no impact."

Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University, said it may take more than one appearance by Willey to change the current political climate. "As powerful as that program was . . . it may be limited by the size of the audience. It would need constant reinforcement on the nightly news broadcasts and in the print media. And a lot depends on whether this leads to anything else."

Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster, said the fact that public opinion toward Clinton has remained stable since the Willey interview reflects the limitations of instant polls and the reality that attitudes about the president's personal life have been firmly fixed for years. "You're assuming that the American public at some stage said that this is a person of high moral values," Hart said. "In truth, they've never believed that."

In 1992, Hart said, only about one-third of those surveyed during the campaign said Clinton's moral values were high or very high, about where they are today. "Yet he's won two elections, which says we're judging him on something beyond personal character."

Two months ago, after the first allegations surfaced that Clinton had had a sexual affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky and urged her to lie about it under oath, which he has denied, the president's approval ratings rose to their highest levels of his presidency and have remained there. At the same time, a majority of Americans say they do not believe the president is telling the full truth and barely a quarter say they believe he is a man of high personal moral and ethical standards, down from four in 10 last summer.

Some pollsters had predicted in advance of Willey's appearance that her testimony would do little, at least initially, to affect opinions. They said her charges, while dramatic, were not something new with regard to Clinton. They also said public opinion has hardened and polarized over the past two months. New charges and countercharges, they said, would be evaluated in the context of a political war between the White House and independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

Still, the response from the White House suggested that the president's advisers feared the worst from Willey's interview, which is why they immediately released letters from Willey suggesting that she remained friendly toward Clinton. Democratic strategists also anticipated a more immediate negative reaction from the public. "I really thought that this time it would make a difference," one Democratic analyst said. "I thought this was bad, that finally there was something that was going to be a big problem."

But the public reaction, based on interviews by Post correspondents in several cities around the country, was far more muted.

"The bottom line with me is that the sex stuff doesn't matter," said Melissa Haffley, 34, a Los Angeles accounts executive. "This whole thing is a waste of time."

Tom Marshall, 59, an airline pilot, said he believed Willey's version of events. "I thought of him [Clinton] as the consummate liar. I'm just sorry he gets away with the important ones. This is trivial."

Tim Crabtree, 27, said in Miami: "I don't think it really matters. I don't care one way or the other whether he did or not, but it has become such an issue that it has taken away from what he should be doing. . . . This should be dealt with after he is finished being president."

These interviews underscored that people appear more alarmed that Clinton may be lying than that he had sexual affairs or encounters. "I don't care about his private life, he can have 20 girls at a time," said Gus Loureiro, 66, a New Jersey club manager who was in Miami this week. "But to lie is a disgrace."

John Green, a professor at the University of Akron, said the political insiders see events like the Willey interview differently than average Americans. "People who are very interested in politics expect far too much out of these things primarily because they do pay attention to them and most Americans don't," he said. "I think maybe the public already has gotten its fix on the alleged scandal."

Greg Mueller, a Republican strategist, said until some of the allegations are resolved, Clinton may continue to hold up politically. "The 'benefit-of-the-doubt' factor for the president is huge," he said. "People aren't quick to get rid of presidents."

Most Americans did not watch Willey on Sunday. Kathleen Frankovic, director of polling at CBS News, said those who did were more likely to believe Willey. But she said that may be because the television audience was proportionately more Republican than those who did not watch.

Throughout this controversy -- as well as those in his past -- Clinton has seemed nearly impervious to character attacks. Is he unique among U.S. politicians? "Clinton's got it to an extreme," one Democrat said. "Clinton is definitely the master."

But other politicians have been hit with devastating charges about their personal lives and survived. In 1990, Texas Democrat Ann Richards acknowledged in her gubernatorial campaign that she was a recovered alcoholic. Later she was accused by an opponent of having used drugs other than marijuana, which she sought to deflect. She went on to win the primary and the general election.

Clinton and his team have perfected the technique of toughing it out in times of crisis, by counterattacking, casting doubt on an accuser's story and hanging on. Willey's letters, coupled with reports that she sought a lucrative book contract, gave Clinton's team helpful weapons. "She handed them a club to beat her with," one Democratic analyst said.

Frankovic said one of the most interesting findings in her recent polls came from people who were asked why they approved of the job Clinton was doing. The second most important reason, she said, was the economy. But even more important was the belief that Clinton was remaining focused on his job despite the controversy. "It says a lot about why the approval rating went up," she said. "[He was] benefiting from the crisis."

White House aides may take comfort from the polls, but the battering Clinton has taken threatens to erode his authority and undermine his capacity to lead during the remainder of his presidency. The Willey allegations have caused strains within the Democratic coalition, as feminists begin to defect.

The polls show that if it can be proved he lied under oath, his support could plunge dramatically, and there is evidence that Clinton may be remembered more for the allegations about his personal behavior than his public accomplishments. "I think he must be thoroughly and totally disgusted with himself at this point," Ayres said of the president. "He must be aware of the effect on his legacy."

Staff writer Terry M. Neal and special correspondents Catharine Skipp, Devon Spurgeon and Cassandra Stern contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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