Female Supporters Stand by Clinton Despite Stories of Harassment and Womanizing
By Kevin Merida
Not the women he allegedly propositioned, groped and had affairs with during a quarter century in politics.
But the other women of America who always seem to look the other way.
Despite the heartache -- maybe that's heartburn -- they still like him. At least a majority do, according to what the polls keep telling us.
Explanations of his magic abound: It's his policies. His good looks. His charm. His gregariousness. His intellect. His feminine side.
"He's not afraid of being called a sissy or something," explains Patricia Schroeder, the former Democratic congresswoman. "He's not afraid to talk about issues that a lot of guys would say, 'Oh, I can't talk about that because I wouldn't be a manly man.' "
She means issues like breast cancer and day care and 48-hour hospital stays for women giving birth. Not your customary presidential pablum. Women, in fact, are so crucial to the president's success that the Clinton White House even has an Office for Women's Initiatives and Outreach.
By now, though, you'd think that Bill Clinton might have depleted his bank of trust with American women. His ledger contains enough explosive allegations to sink a cruise ship: The alleged 12-year amour with Gennifer Flowers. The alleged trysts arranged by Arkansas state troopers. The lawsuit by Paula Jones, who claims she was invited to Clinton's hotel room in 1991 and asked to perform oral sex.
And now the biggest blockbuster of all -- the allegation that Clinton carried on an 18-month fling with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and lied about it. The president has issued an emphatic denial.
"We would have expected women's support to possibly fold on this issue because of the sexual power dynamic in a relationship between the president and a 21-year-old woman," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. "But the counter-dynamic is women really like Clinton. He's less important as an individual than as a leader for women."
Exactly, says Pat Landsberger, a Des Moines travel agent.
"I think all this stuff is crap," she says, "investigating people's private lives. We elected him to be president. Let him do his job. All I know is my lifestyle is better since he's been in office. I've got more money in my pocket. My taxes have gone down. And I can afford groceries. When Reagan and them were in office, we were hurting. Clinton's in there fighting for the little guy."
Landsberger is also a Democrat, which partly explains what the polls are recording -- slightly more support for Clinton among females than males. Since a greater proportion of women than men identify themselves as Democrats, Clinton is likely to have greater support among women than men in times of crisis. That's the theory of gender-gap politics.
"We find more often than not that this level of accusation has the effect of energizing his supporters," says White House communications director Ann Lewis, who estimates that two-thirds of her mail since the scandal broke has been from women.
According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll taken last week, a higher percentage of men than women say Clinton's alleged dalliance with Lewinsky is an important issue. A Los Angeles Times survey last week found that women were more likely than men to believe Clinton had the integrity for the office. And a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll conducted early this week placed Clinton's favorable rating at 57 percent among women, compared with 48 percent among men.
The White House, in concert with Democratic women's organizations, is trying to tap Clinton's support among the sisterhood. The Arkansas Federation of Democratic Women is producing buttons -- available for $2 by mail -- that read: "Committed to Clinton."
In his State of the Union address, the president reminded millions of women tuning in that the Family and Medical Leave Act -- very popular with them -- was the first legislation he signed as president.
Lewis says "some structure may be set up " to respond to women who have offered to help defend Clinton. Officials are using volunteers to send out transcripts of Hillary Rodham Clinton's Tuesday interview on NBC's "Today" show. That appearance, some Clinton strategists believe, helped to shift public attention away from the president's truthfulness to the motivations of the accusers. Not only did Hillary Clinton accuse independent counsel Kenneth Starr of being part of a "vast right-wing conspiracy," she showed women through her calm demeanor that she was not going to play the aggrieved spouse.
Jan Riviere, a self-described political independent, says Hillary Clinton is one of the main reasons she is giving the president the benefit of the doubt.
"We all make concessions and live with certain things in our marriage," says the 54-year-old Riviere, who runs the Berryville Bed & Breakfast in Berryville, Va. "If she's decided that whatever his tragic flaw is, she can accept it, then I think women feel they can support that.
"If it ever came down to Hillary versus Bill," she adds, "a lot of people would side with Hillary. But until that happens, I think people are willing to let whatever happens behind closed doors stay there."
There's an amen from Agnes Bundy Scanlan.
"I really don't care to know about the sexual practices of the president of the United States," says Scanlan, a managing director of the Fleet Financial Group in Boston. "If there's some perjury being committed, that's what I'm interested in. . . . But don't get me into the morality of a 50-year-old man sleeping with a 21-year-old woman."
Republican pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick has some theories about why women have not dumped Clinton.
Theory 1: "Women made peace with Bill Clinton's past because he was so articulate in addressing their futures."
Theory 2: "Women tend to be the first to pounce on 'the other woman.' The other woman is always the tempting seductress."
Think Donna Rice, the other woman who sunk Gary Hart's 1988 presidential campaign before it could get off the ground. And then think Lee Hart, the strong wife who had to bear the humiliation.
"It's easier for women to put themselves in the role of the person cheated on," says Fitzpatrick, "rather than the one who would have had an affair with a married man."
Others note that part of Clinton's appeal as a politician is his ability to connect with people as individuals, to engage them on their own terms and become absorbed in what they have to say.
Women have often felt that men in politics don't take them seriously -- as "full players," as Schroeder puts it. So this particular skill of Clinton's is particularly impressive to them.
Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), who has had several meetings with the president in small groups or individually, says: "You feel that when you're with him, he's totally focused on you. He's interested in what you're talking about."
Lowey recalls a White House reception in which Clinton stopped for 25 minutes in a receiving line to bat around welfare reform with her, quoting a dozen examples of how reform was working in other states and soliciting her ideas.
Jeanne Flynn, a Washington massage therapist who once counted Barbara Bush as a client, has observed the Clinton charm -- but is suspicious of it.
"It was just a sixth sense from the beginning," she says. "Every time something happened, I believed it. I've always believed the Gennifer Flowers thing. I've always believed the Paula Jones thing. . . . There's something about the way he smiles, something about his manner that says don't hang out with this guy. I don't know -- too smooth? 'Slick Willie' -- I thought that was the perfect name for him."
And Flynn is a registered Democrat.
There is no doubt that Bill Clinton is a lady's man and always has been. Ann Henry, who has known Clinton since he first entered politics, recalls his initial campaign, an unsuccessful bid to win a House seat in 1974.
"Lots of women wanted to work in his campaign," she recalls, "because he was a catch."
In 1975, Hillary Rodham caught him for good and the Henrys hosted the wedding reception for the newlyweds in their back yard in Fayetteville, Ark. That women would continue to gravitate toward Clinton as he ascended the political ladder did not surprise Henry. And it does not surprise her that they are sticking with him now.
"He's outgoing, he's gregarious, he's a toucher, he's a hugger. . . . He's a voracious reader," she says. "He accepts people as they are."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company