By Terry M. Neal
NORTH BERGEN, N.J. When weighing the scandal enveloping the Clinton presidency, one image lingers in the minds of many voters: the president at the White House four weeks ago, wagging his finger and declaring indignantly that "I did not have sexual relations with that woman."
It was effective. Given the lack of proof that he had sex with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, lied about it under oath and urged her to lie about it, many voters around the country are still giving Clinton the benefit of the doubt, according to polls.
On the other hand, that moment on camera before the American public could prove
Interviews with 30 or so people late last week in two congressional districts one in the Democratic-leaning northern New Jersey, the other in the Republican stronghold of central Pennsylvania suggest the public's support could erode quickly if it is proven Clinton lied.
"I still have confidence in our president and leader until it's proven that he is incompetent or that he lied," said Ralph Peterson, 75, a registered independent from Harrisburg, Pa.
Interviews with voters in both congressional districts suggest widely varying opinions about the controversy, and the responses paint a complicated picture that cannot be captured solely by polls.
One of the more confounding aspects of the public reaction is an apparent disconnection among voters who say Clinton should not be penalized if it is proven he had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. On the other hand, many of those same voters say he should be punished somehow, perhaps even impeached, if he lied in denying the affair. But those two things clearly cannot be separated: If Clinton had the affair with Lewinsky, that means he also lied about it.
Margaret Herbst, a retired corporate secretary and Clinton supporter, said she finds the sex allegations against Clinton unseemly, but couldn't see him being punished for doing the same thing that goes on in workplaces around the country every day. But if he lied, she said, he's in trouble.
When asked the question this way "Doesn't it mean he lied if it is proven he had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky?" she paused and said: "That's a good point."
Standing just inside the Pathmark grocery store in North Bergen, Herbst continued: "I remember that press conference." She put her hand on her hip and wagged her finger, imitating Clinton. "If he did it, he should never have lied about it. He should have just said, 'I'm sorry. I goofed.'‚"
The New Jersey district is a densely populated, multiethnic area with economic extremes that begins on the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel from New York City. It is represented by Rep. Steve R. Rothman, a first-term Democrat. The Pennsylvania district is anchored by racially diverse Harrisburg, but most of the district is suburban and rural, white and overwhelmingly Republican. It is represented by Rep. George W. Gekas, an eight-term Republican.
Rothman and Gekas serve on the House Judiciary Committee, which would initiate impeachment hearings against Clinton if it came to that point. For now, both men are predicting it won't come to that.
"I think he will prevail," Gekas said in an interview over breakfast at the Harrisburg Hilton on Friday. "He's very clever and articulate, and he's attracted [positive] public opinion."
Though he is a reliable partisan and no fan of Clinton, Gekas said he would find it difficult to vote to impeach Clinton based purely on whether he perjured himself when asked about Lewinsky in the Paula Jones deposition. But if he asked Lewinsky to lie and attempted to obstruct justice, "he's got to be impeached."
Gekas, like his colleagues on the committee, is aware of a crucial point: Impeachments are as much about politics as they are about law. He draws parallels to President Richard M. Nixon, who resigned in 1974 with impeachment looming. Politically speaking, Nixon could not be impeached until public opinion turned to the point that he lost significant support even in his own Republican party. Similarly, he said, the public wouldn't stand for a strictly GOP-backed impeachment of Clinton.
For its possible political ramifications, Clinton's public denial at the White House could prove to be more damaging than his denial behind closed doors in the Jones deposition. Appearing stern, he glared at the cameras and said "I want you to listen to me," before going on to deny the relationship.
A Washington Post-ABC poll last week put Clinton's job approval rating at 67 percent, high numbers for any president, much less one in the middle of a headline-hogging scandal.
The poll is also striking for its other extremes: Only 28 percent of the respondents said Clinton "has high personal moral and ethical standards." On the other hand, many apparently believe him when he says, "I feel your pain" 63 percent said he "understands the problems of people like you"; 68 percent said he is a strong leader; and 80 percent said he has done a good job on the economy.
Those surveyed who said they do not believe Clinton increased 10 percent, to 59 percent, since a similar poll two days after his denial at the White House on Jan. 26. Yet his job approval rating has gone up and remained high. The contradiction is apparent: Most people do not believe him but say they like the job he is doing anyway; at the same time, most people say they won't support him if what they already believe about him is proved.
Taken as a whole, the poll suggests an ability of the American public to compartmentalize when it comes to Clinton. And the interviews in Pennsylvania and New Jersey seem to indicate that many voters identify positively with Clinton because of, rather than in spite of, his alleged frailties and imperfections.
"He does the job, gives a good speech, and everybody makes money," said Theodore Harbilis, a 63-year-old cook in Harrisburg, and a Republican who said he is married to a cousin of Gekas. "He's no different than anybody else. So why should I judge?"
Clinton's 1992 informal campaign slogan, "It's the economy, stupid," seems to have taken on new relevant meaning. A number of people said, essentially, that they hate to see their good mood over the humming economy spoiled by a sex scandal. Even Joe Miller, a 53-year-old teacher and registered Democrat from Guttenberg, N.J., who said that if Clinton lied he should be impeached, quickly tempered his assessment with, "on the the other hand, I'm making a lot of money."
The interview responses transcended simple partisan politics. Some Republicans said they despised the president but wouldn't want him to be impeached even if he perjured himself. Some Democrats said they thought Clinton had been an excellent president, but should be impeached if he lied.
"If he did lie, then he probably did it to protect his wife and his family," said Helen Colacci, 40, a teller at a racetrack and a registered Democrat from North Bergen. She doesn't think a sex scandal should derail a presidency, even if it involves perjury and lying to the American public. "I think it's ridiculous that so much is being made of this. If his wife isn't mad at him, I'm not going to be. She's the one who has to live with him."
Gary Baker, 27, refers to Clinton with an expletive but doesn't want him impeached, particularly since he only has a couple years left in office. Out for drinks at Wanda's nightclub in suburban Harrisburg, Baker said he can't fathom the dishonor and embarrassment impeachment would bring on the country.
"Besides, what would it accomplish other than getting [Vice President] Al Gore in office?" said Baker, a business consultant and registered Republican.
Researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company