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American Voters See Two Very Different Bill Clintons

By David S. Broder and Richard Morin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 23, 1998; Page A1

Americans continue to see President Clinton as a strong leader in touch with their problems even as a growing majority express doubts about his honesty, integrity and moral character, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News survey.

The poll describes a public that sees two very different Bill Clintons: The president whose stewardship of the nation's economy and decisiveness in foreign affairs they continue to applaud, and the man whose scandal-plagued personal life is viewed with increased disgust, embarrassment and even sadness.

At the end of the week, Clinton's job-approval rating stood at 66 percent, barely below its all-time high. Three in four approved of the way he is handling the economy, his best performance on this key measure of his presidency. Seven in 10 Americans surveyed said he is doing a good job directing the nation's foreign policy, also a record high.

At the same time, 28 percent said he is honest and trustworthy, while 19 percent said he has high moral and ethical standards – both new lows in Post-ABC surveys. Four in 10 said he probably did something illegal in connection with his affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. And half said he was not completely truthful about their relationship when he testified to a grand jury last week.

These sentiments were reflected in interviews with voters in an Illinois congressional district southwest of Chicago, which supported Clinton in 1996 but also elected a Republican House member.

"I voted for him," said Robert Hutchason, 45, a salesman for a soft-drink company, "but I probably should have gone the other way. He's done a good job as president, but he's been a liar from the start. He's let the country down. I don't think it will help to impeach him. It would just be a waste of money."

The Post-ABC poll found 62 percent saying the president should not resign or be forced from office for lying about his relationship with Lewinsky. Just over half – 54 percent – said he should not be impeached even if he encouraged her to lie about it under oath. But if independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr turns over to Congress evidence of a pattern of instances in which the president has attempted to cover up other wrongdoing, more than half – 52 percent – of Americans said he should be impeached.

The survey of 1,015 randomly selected adults was conducted Wednesday through Friday. A separate survey of 416 adults was conducted Thursday and Friday, after the United States bombed suspected terrorist sites in Afghanistan and Sudan.

By 3 to 1, Americans approved of Clinton's decision to strike back at the terrorist organization suspected of directing the bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa. More than six in 10 of those surveyed believed Clinton ordered the attacks to punish terrorists and disrupt their plans. Only one in four – 27 percent – said the president launched the raids mainly to divert attention away from the Lewinsky investigation.

"I agree with what he did today [Thursday]; it shows he's trying to do his job," said Barbara Poffenbarger, 40, a nurse who lives in Shorewood, Ill. "But with Miss Lewinsky, he messed up real bad, and I don't know there's anything he can do to rectify it."

Many Americans also questioned whether Clinton can devote sufficient attention to the country's problems while dealing with his own. More than six in 10 said they think the scandal is interfering with his "ability to deal effectively with international terrorism and other problems around the world."

The Post-ABC survey found that few Americans were surprised by Clinton's admissions last week. More than eight in 10 said the president merely confirmed their suspicions about his relationship with Lewinsky, and four in 10 said they felt "relieved" by his disclosures.

But nearly half also said the president's Monday night speech had "disgusted" them. Four in 10 said it had made them feel "sad" to hear Clinton admit he had an improper relationship with Lewinsky, and nearly as many said his admission had "embarrassed" them. Half also said they felt Clinton had "let the country down."

"I wanted him to say it was wrong and he was sorry," said Anne Luering, 46, a second-grade teacher and a Republican. "Instead, he went off on tangents, attacking other people. ... Maybe he wanted to show he was still a strong leader, but that wasn't the way to do it."

The poll found 54 percent of the country saying that Clinton has answered "all of the important questions" about his relationship with Lewinsky, with 41 percent disagreeing. The country is more divided over whether Clinton needs to apologize further for misleading the public about the relationship: 51 percent said what they heard in Monday's speech was sufficient; 47 percent said Clinton needs to say more.

But two-thirds also said Clinton doesn't owe an apology to Lewinsky, who remains a distant and increasingly disliked figure. Three out of four Americans – 74 percent – said they have an unfavorable impression of her, up from 61 percent in a poll a month ago.

Like most Americans, the Illinois voters think that, barring new evidence of perjury or obstruction of justice, Clinton should be allowed to finish his term. But Republicans expressed anger over the White House scandal, and Democrats said they are disturbed and disappointed by the president's behavior. Almost all said they would not support him, if he were on the ballot again.

In 1996, Clinton carried Illinois' 11th Congressional District – a mix of heavily unionized industrial areas and Republican farm country – by 13 percentage points over Republican Robert J. Dole. But freshman Rep. Gerald "Jerry" Weller (R) survived Dole's weak showing to eke out a 52 percent to 48 percent victory.

Weller's current challenger, Joliet attorney Gary Mueller, was already an underdog. But the Clinton admission could not have come at a worse time for him. Last Monday, Mueller broadcast his first ad, a 60-second radio spot in which he said: "Public service is about trust. Don't make promises you can't keep. Don't say one thing and do another. That's honesty. That's how you earn people's trust. And that's why I'm running for Congress."

The ad was aimed at what Mueller regards as Weller's vulnerability. He believes the congressman "tries to be everything to everybody," seeking to satisfy labor and business, conservatives and liberals in his diverse district.

But local reporters immediately cornered Mueller on Clinton. "Obviously, his leadership skills were lacking in the last seven months," Mueller said. "Monday he took a step toward repairing the damage, but he still owes a big apology to the country. That's what I'm hearing throughout the district. I'm not going to run away from him. Loyalty means a lot to me. I just hope there's nothing more damaging out there."

Weller – who conceded, "I've been lying low," heeding the advice of Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) – said he feels pressure to speak out. He was interrupted during an interview at an outdoor Joliet cafe by a young couple with two infants in a stroller. "Clinton is setting a terrible moral example," the wife said. "If he doesn't resign, you have to do something," the husband added.

A hardening of partisan lines was also apparent in voter interviews in a working class neighborhood of well-maintained older homes in the industrial community of Steger and in a middle-class development called Shorewood, built about 20 years ago west of Joliet and surrounded by corn fields.

With few exceptions, those who said they had voted for Clinton want him to finish his term. But even Democrats found his actions hard to accept. Rebecca Magruder, 27, a housewife with a 15-month-old daughter and a Clinton supporter, said, "This has been absolutely horrible. I thought he was really doing fine, but now all you hear on TV is he cheated on this or that. I don't want to hear that about my president."

Republicans were harsher in their judgments, seeing his actions as confirmation of long-held suspicions. According to the Post-ABC poll, seven in 10 Republicans, four in 10 independents but only one in four Democrats said Clinton should be impeached if he told Lewinsky to lie under oath. Since January, GOP support for impeachment has grown, even as more Democrats are standing by Clinton.

"If it was up to me, I'd impeach him," said Jeff Paris, 39, who works for the Will County Sheriff's Department. "Throw him out of office. He betrayed his family, his party and his country. If I was a foreign leader, I wouldn't talk with him unless I had a team of lawyers and a Webster's dictionary with me. Why would anyone trust him?"

There was a minority that said the whole thing has been overblown and doesn't matter much. Roger Mumford, a quality control engineer for the village of Steger, belonged to this group. "I wish they'd get over this Lewinsky deal," he said. "He's done a damn good job."

Dennis Doyle, 30, a sociology teacher at a local college, said: "There's obviously a lot to be desired in his private life, but these things happen. I don't know whether he lied to protect himself or others. But he's president of the United States, and he has 265 million Americans to take care of. It's ridiculous to obsess on this. ... I say forget about it."

Some blamed the news media and Clinton's political enemies. "I don't think Starr ever has had a case," said Jim Burkey, 30, a special education teacher. "And I'm sick of the tabloid journalism. They treat the president no better than a Hollywood celebrity. We need a little bit of respect for our leaders."

More than six in 10 Americans said they want Starr to drop his investigation. Less than half – 42 percent – said they approve of Starr's handling of the probe, up from 31 percent in July.

Public attitudes toward the media may be moderating as well. Most Americans said they believe journalists are paying too much attention to the scandal. But a majority – 55 percent – said the media has been fair to Clinton. In late January, the same proportion said reporters were being unfair to the president.

And for many, it has been a deeply disturbing experience. Dona Kloss, 60, who twice voted for Clinton, said: "I'm disillusioned. We all make mistakes, but it really bothers me that he lied and is still lying. He's angry – not repentant. I don't know how anyone teaches values to the little ones when you have an example like this."

Assistant director of polling Claudia Deane and staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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