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Of Presidents, State Troopers And Character : In the State of the Union, Clinton said we should teach values ‘by our example.’

<i> Tom Bethell is Washington correspondent of the American Spectator</i>

Following the allegations of sexual misconduct by Bill Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas, the conventional wisdom has been that, while readers may be interested in prurient fashion, they don’t really think that such “private” behavior affects the President’s handling of his job. The Whitewater business is another matter, we are told. That involves a failed savings and loan and possible influence peddling. Readers are interested in that.

It seems to me that this is quite wrong. There is no doubt that the great majority of readers do regard the extramarital behavior of the President-to-be as newsworthy. The real question is whether they ought to, whether it is a legitimate topic of inquiry. To be sure, there is bound to be “prurient interest” in such stories, but that does not necessarily exclude legitimate interest. “Worthy” news does not have to be dull news.

Some journalists may have, rather, played up Whitewater if only to show they’re not soft on presidential peccadilloes. “Because journalists can’t go after Clinton on the sex,” Newsweek’s Evan Thomas was quoted as saying the other day, “they’re going after him on the finances.” Finances, usually, make for boring reading. But OK, let’s be good citizens, put on our green eyeshades and “follow the money.” Perhaps the investigation will shed new light on the strange death of Vincent Foster. Whether by the standards of the stuffiest insider or the customer at the supermarket check-out counter, that might be big news.

Meanwhile, what about the sexual allegations? Have we really become so cynical in America that we are now indifferent to the observance of marriage vows? It was only a generation ago that Nelson Rockefeller was thought to be ineligible for the presidency because he was divorced. Polling suggests that values may not have changed quite as much as we imagine. About 90% of respondents have consistently said that sexual relations outside marriage are “always” or “almost always” wrong. In 1991, 35% of those surveyed in a Wall Street Journal-NBC poll thought that an extramarital affair should disqualify a candidate from becoming President. (The same percentage thought not, and the rest weren’t sure).

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Political biases strongly affect these responses, as might be expected. When Gallup recently asked whether the Arkansas troopers’ charges “are important indicators of Clinton’s character and ability to serve as President, and should be thoroughly examined by the news media,” 54% of Republicans, but only 20% of Democrats, said yes. It is indeed difficult to dispense with political preference in answering such questions. Twenty years ago, the “character issue” was raised time and again by Democrats against President Nixon. Republicans were inclined to say that Nixon was still functioning adequately as President. In the end, however, that pretense could not be sustained.

Perhaps presidential “character” was more important during the Cold War, when there was legitimate concern about the finger on the nuclear button. But we have our own important issues today, among them the rising tide of illegitimacy as a major national concern. In the State of the Union address, the President admonished us “by our example” to teach children to “cherish our values.” With such an agenda, allegations about his own conduct cannot simply be dismissed as irrelevant. His performance as President, recall, involves a good measure of persuasion--and it is bound to be affected by perceptions of his own sincerity or hypocrisy.

The Washington writer Sally Quinn said recently that “the stream of allegations out of Little Rock” has “taken its toll.” When the President asks us to trust him on Bosnia or the defense budget, she added, “some of us feel uneasy. Words like ‘character’ and ‘trust’ become codes for the President’s private behavior.” In carefully impersonal language, she noted “a reluctance to actually confront the question of a president’s past personal transgressions for fear that will make them true. . . . As long as we don’t give the question official credence, don’t take it more seriously than laughing at the nightly jokes, the soul of the presidency will not be tarnished.”

A final note: There has been much talk in Washington about how “cynical” the public has become--excessively distrustful of politicians, for example. But it may be that the cynicism is most pervasive inside the Beltway. When the “Troopergate” story broke, one journalist here publicly disparaged it as “two troopers who are trying to get a book deal.” Is this not the soul of cynicism? The cash nexus explains all. We should not dismiss too lightly the possibility that a measure of legitimate moral disapproval was involved.


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