Test Reluctance to Judge
By Richard Morin and David S. Broder
First in a series of occasional articles
For many Americans, the White House scandal is just the latest symptom of broad and deep moral decline. Everywhere they look in the newspaper, on television, in their own neighborhoods and even within their own families they see eroding values.
An in-depth study of the values Americans espouse, whose first findings are being released by The Washington Post today, suggests why President Clinton's extramarital dalliance with Monica S. Lewinsky angers and upsets so many people and why the country has been so reluctant to punish him politically for behavior it considers wrong.
On one hand, Clinton has confronted the country with a sample of what three out of four of his constituents see as a dangerous decline in the values on display in the national culture. They link the White House escapade to their broader worries about the lack of respect for tradition and authority, to the coarse content of the movies, television and music, to personal dishonesty and sexual promiscuity.
At the same time, Clinton has become a test case of whether this generation of Americans wants to sit in judgment on each other or be willing to live and let live.
More than seven in 10 said adultery was unacceptable and "should not be tolerated." Yet when it comes to Clinton, what the public says and what it means are two different things: Fewer than half of those who said adultery "should not be tolerated" said Clinton's affair with Lewinsky was an important matter. Twice as many said it was important whether he had lied about it or encouraged Lewinsky to lie.
The survey, conducted by The Post in collaboration with Harvard University and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, was virtually complete before the president's Aug. 17 speech acknowledging the widely suspected relationship with Lewinsky. The public judgment may shift after today's release of a report from independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr that is expected to detail efforts by Clinton and others to conceal the Lewinsky affair.
Clinton's actions are not viewed in isolation. They come at a time when many Americans are also upset by what they regard as other threatening social trends, from alcoholism to sexual harassment to homosexuality to homelessness.
Coming to judgment on Clinton requires resolving a complex of considerations.
The survey found that nine out of 10 Americans said an affair by a married person is unacceptable. The condemnation for that behavior was far stronger than for other controversial actions, including bearing a child out of wedlock, marijuana smoking or same-sex marriage.
The poll also showed that only one American in five thought Clinton shared most of that person's values, with twice as many saying he embodied hardly any or none of them. Vice President Gore and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton fared better; House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), worse. But Clinton's low rating apparently has pulled down the Democratic Party. Its rating on upholding moral standards has slumped.
At a deeper level, the survey showed Americans sharply divided on what to expect from a political leader. Half of those interviewed 49 percent say it is performance alone that counts in a president, agreeing that "as long as he does a good job running the country, whatever he does in his personal life is not important." But just as many disagree: They say the president has a "greater responsibility" to set "an example with his personal life."
When asked to say in their own words what worries them most about the country's values and morals, nearly as many mentioned Clinton or some aspect of the Lewinsky scandal as specified declining family values.
Edward Krutulis, 34, a Plainfield, Ill., pharmaceutical sales representative, after lamenting the country's moral condition, said, "Obviously, President Clinton's not much of a role model for us."
That might not be so worrisome if people were not concerned about the trends they see in American society. Three in four said the country's values and morals are in serious decline. Nearly two in three said they were dissatisfied with the "honesty and standards of behavior of the people in this country."
Large majorities of men and women, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, blacks and whites, young people and old, the wealthy and the poor sense something has gone terribly wrong with the country's moral compass.
"Our values are in very, very poor shape and society is dropping at a dramatic rate," said Richard Easton Jr., 28, a shipping clerk in a plastics factory in Turner's Falls, Mass. His short list of examples that illustrate America's moral decline is revealing: Just behind crime but ahead of the erosion of family life, he cites politics.
"I am tired of politics," Easton admits. "The political system needs to be revamped. There's too few honest people in politics." Easton, who voted for Clinton in 1996, said the president's troubles "confirmed for me even more that in politics, values and morals and honesty and truth don't go together."
The survey revealed a growing "morality gap" in the perception of the two parties. The percentage of Americans who say they trust the Democratic Party to encourage "high moral standards and values" has never been lower, dropping from 33 percent in July to 26 percent last month.
But the poll also found that Republicans have not greatly improved their reputation: 41 percent of those surveyed said the GOP was the party of values and morals, unchanged from July but up slightly from a year ago.
The proportion that said they trusted neither party to set the moral and ethical tone for the country increased from 13 percent in July to 20 percent barely a month later.
The surging importance of values and moral issues may dramatically affect vote choices this November. Among the 21 percent of Americans who believe the country's values are strong, 62 percent say they plan to vote for a Democratic candidate for Congress. But among those who think the country's values are headed in the wrong direction a much larger number Republicans enjoy a 46 percent to 40 percent advantage, according to the Post/Harvard/Kaiser survey.
A majority of Americans 55 percent believe their values are losing influence, while 35 percent say their morals and values are on the rise, views that are correlated with candidate preferences.
Among those who think their values are gaining influence, 50 percent plan to vote for a Democratic congressional candidate while 38 percent support a Republican. But among those who say their values are losing, Republicans held a 46 percent to 42 percent advantage.
The poll found that one in four Americans are "values voters" casting their ballot primarily on the basis of a candidate's personal values and morals, rather than on issues, ideology or experience. Republican House candidates were the choice of 57 percent of these voters, while 30 percent supported a Democrat.
One other consequence of the White House scandal is rising dissatisfaction with the government generally: 41 percent of those interviewed said they were satisfied with the way the federal government is working, down from 46 percent in a Post survey conducted immediately before the scandal broke.
At the same time, the proportion indicating they were dissatisfied with the federal government increased, from 53 percent in January to 57 percent in the Post/Harvard/Kaiser poll.
While modest, these changes reversed an encouraging trend: Immediately before the Lewinsky scandal broke, public confidence in the government was on the rise. The latest results suggest that even the good economy and America's superpower status may not be good enough to prevent an increase in public mistrust of government, which had never been higher when Clinton took office six years ago.
"I teach children," said Donald Jackson, 36, of Easton, Pa. "They look up to me. I see children imitating what I do. Whether or not I like that role, or accept that role, it is there. Many kids look up to the president and say, 'I want to be president.' Look at the presidency now," he said. "Is this what they want to be like?"
Other conflicts complicate the values debate, contributing to this sense of division and confusion symbolized by public reaction to the White House scandal.
Nine in 10 Americans agree that the country "would have many fewer problems if there were more emphasis on traditional family values." At the same time, nearly as many 70 percent agree that "we should be more tolerant of people who choose to live according to their own moral standards even if we think they are wrong."
Delia Mohlie, 44, a married mother of two who works part time as an assistant librarian, says she knows her attitudes toward the issues involved in the Clinton scandal seem "very inconsistent." The Waldoboro, Maine, resident is strongly against adultery, but at the same time does not believe Clinton's marital infidelity is an important issue.
Mohlie, a Democrat and 1996 Clinton voter, said, "Number one, it doesn't matter to other parts of his presidency. And number two, no longer do Americans expect leaders to be lily white in their behavioral patterns. . . . I can't expect perfection. It's not realistic."
Another Democrat, Alice May Pugh, 42, who runs a group home for the mentally retarded and serves as mayor of Dillonvale, Ohio, said she worries that "so many young people seem to have no values and a lot of the people who are leading have no morals. I'm more or less disgusted with the whole political situation and I'm very disgusted with all the media attention to all the wrong issues."
But Pugh declines to pass critical judgment on Clinton. "I think he's done a good job as president," she said. "His private life is between him and his wife. It's been blown out of proportion by the media."
Yet such tolerance for unacceptable behavior clearly disturbs many Americans and contributes to the sense that the country's morals and ethics will only get worse, not better.
Two in three said they worried that the country would become "too tolerant of behaviors that are bad for society"; fewer than a third said their greatest fear for the future was that we would become "too intolerant of behaviors that don't do any real harm."
"There are very few values left," said Patrice Weston, a 31-year-old teacher who lives in Hudson, N.C. "There's not even small-town values anymore. I feel that nowadays no one stands up for what they believe in . . . for things they would have stood up for 20 years ago. You will be be berated if you do."
Assistant director of polling Claudia Deane contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company