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Why Clinton Is Still Buoyant

By Richard Lacayo

TIME magazine

(TIME, March 30) -- No single mystery of the White House sex scandals--not who did what to whom, not who leaked what and why--compares to the paradox that has been driving commentators and Republicans crazy. Why doesn't Bill Clinton just go down in flames? Week after week the charges get thrown against him, but his approval ratings mostly stay high or go higher. At this point he's the bumblebee of American politics. By every rule of aerodynamics, he shouldn't be able to fly. All the same, he does.

Kathleen Willey's appearance on 60 Minutes was supposed to be yet another turning point on Clinton's road to the doghouse. Instead, over the next couple of days, and even before the White House counterattack was fully under way, his poll numbers remained at record levels. In a new TIME/CNN survey conducted by Yankelovich Partners, the President's approval rating was 67%, just one notch below his personal high point in January, after he bounced back from the Monica Lewinsky scandal with an intrepid State of the Union speech. But in the new poll, 52% also believe he has engaged in a pattern of sexual misconduct while President. That means that many of Clinton's supporters also believe he did something like what his accusers say he did. "He's had sexual wanderings," says Bill O'Rourke, 49, a police officer in Minneapolis, Minn. "I don't think it's right. I don't think it's moral behavior. But I also don't see that it's had an effect on his being able to do the job of running the country."

The conventional wisdom holds that Clinton is untouchable because a robust economy has made satisfied customers of us all. But the conventional wisdom doesn't begin to comprehend the intricacy of a scandal in which charges of unappetizing personal behavior are made by accusers of varying plausibility against a President of imperfect credibility. To situate yourself amid the interlocking treacheries of the story so far, you might need the sensibilities of Henry James and the skepticism of Henry Adams. Or you might simply arrive at a position in which misgivings about presidential sex don't translate into a lust for legal or even political retribution. This is just about where most people seem to find themselves now, according to follow-up interviews with dozens of people in the TIME/CNN poll.

To begin with, when they give Clinton high marks as President, they mean just what they say. On the whole, they like the way he handles the economy, the budget, Iraq, education and health care. Many of them also don't believe his accusers, especially the ones who have book deals on the horizon. But for a lot of them, saying yes to Clinton also appears to be their way of just saying no to Monicagate, meaning no to the very idea of making intimate personal behavior, even skanky behavior, the subject of a criminal inquiry. "I wouldn't want people probing into my private life," says Ralph Panecaldo, 60, a semiretired architect in Berkeley, Calif. "And the President is a U.S. citizen, just like anybody."

This is not the same thing as saying none of them care what the President does in his personal life, which is the standard, shorthand misrepresentation of that position. What it does mean is that a lot of people who don't like the idea of adultery--or even just ham-handed, alpha-male sexual boorishness--still don't think it's the government's job to move in on those things yelling, "Stop! Police!" Above all, the notion that sexual misconduct should become the basis for a crisis that shakes the Republic seems to them a bit much. Public ridicule is one thing. Impeachment is another. "I don't think he should cheat on his wife, because I'm a Christian," says Juanianetta Fowler, 58, a substitute teacher in Philadelphia. "But I don't think he should lose his presidency over it."

What could get Clinton in trouble with the people who continue to back him? One thing would be evidence that he lied under oath, they say, though some of them also say lying about sex is only to be expected. Another would be evidence that he was guilty of really harassing the women in question, though for some that means proving he did not take no for an answer after being pushed away the first time.

Oddly, Clinton may even be benefiting directly from the scandal. In the new poll, 63% of the respondents agreed that he could be described as "a strong and decisive leader," an increase of 17 points from a year ago. The successful (for now) conclusion of the latest standoff with Iraq would be one reason. But some of the poll respondents also cite Clinton's imperturbable response to the tidal wave of sexual accusations as evidence that he can handle himself in a crisis. Michael Church, 25, a real estate consultant in El Cajon, Calif., says he favors Republicans on most issues but admires the President for responding to the scandals "efficiently, taking up as little time as possible."

Maybe Clinton can win the Purple Heart after all: for bravery in the face of sexual embarrassment. But what a lot of people are trying to say when they talk to pollsters is that sexual embarrassment, even the kind that's well deserved, is not their idea of a criminal offense.

--Reported by Aisha Labi and Elizabeth Rudulph/New York
In TIME This Week

Cover Date: March 30, 1998

Why Clinton Is Still Buoyant
Outrageous Fortune
The Lives Of Kathleen Willey
Viewpoint: The Trouble With The Present Tense
Africa Rising
Dividing Line: My Dungeon Shook
Courting Controversy
The KGB Of Mississippi
Romancing The Widow?
The Notebook: Primary Colors, Part II

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