Clinton's Kennedyesque Image

By , Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

BILL CLINTON is no Jimmy Carter; but he might become a John Kennedy. We're talking about voter perceptions, nothing more.

Governor Clinton is, like Mr. Carter, a Southerner with strong appeal to Southern voters, blacks as well as whites. But, unlike Carter, Clinton's candidacy is marred by charges that question his character and his integrity.

Carter's appeal was more like that of Paul Tsongas than Clinton. Maybe that's why the former senator from Massachusetts and the former president seem to hit it off so well together. Carter did have that winning smile. But what the voters mainly liked were his expressions of compassion and his commitment to a better America. It was his intelligence, not his personality, that brought people to Jimmy Carter's side.

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Clinton is running like a John Kennedy. Watch that right arm as it goes up and down. JFK used a similar gesture. Then there's that little grin. Maybe it's nothing more than part of what might be called "the real Clinton."

But so often when he flashes that grin I remember how President Kennedy would let that little smile play across his face. I may be a little cynical on this subject. But I think that Clinton, when on the political stage, is always playing Kennedy.

Clinton is probably as bright as Kennedy. And as a presidential candidate he probably - to judge from his record - shows more promise than Robert Kennedy did when he was seeking the presidency in 1968. He's a Rhodes Scholar whose performance as Arkansas governor during six terms has won rave reviews from many of his fellow state chief executives. John Kennedy as a congressman and a senator - often away from Washington, sometimes because of a physical ailment - had been less than impressive.

I covered that 1960 Kennedy-Nixon campaign as a newsman, first going out with one candidate and then the other. The widespread expectation - in the public, in the press, and among politicians - was that Kennedy simply didn't have a chance against Vice President Richard Nixon.

It was not until that fall debate, when Kennedy stood up to Mr. Nixon and, in the eyes of most viewers, faced him down, that the young senator from Massachusetts began to be viewed as someone who could give Nixon a run for his money.

From then on, as I saw it, it was the particularly attractive Kennedy personality that began to give him the edge. Women along the campaign route would leap and scream as he was driven by. Nixon, ever dour, found it more and more difficult to stir up enthusiasm for his candidacy.

The final vote was razor-edge close. But (and this certainly wasn't a verdict shared by many of my press colleagues at that time) I thought the result was a personal victory more than one related to which candidate had the greater ability. Perhaps, of course, the voters sensed that shady side of Nixon's character that emerged during his years in the presidency.

As of now, Clinton is virtually tied with George Bush in polls that pit Clinton against the president. That's better than Kennedy's position against Nixon at the same time in 1960 and months beyond that time. It was not until after that first debate that Kennedy finally came up close to Nixon in the polls.

Clinton's problems are obvious: He, unlike Kennedy, would be running against an incumbent president who has the power to make waves and influence events that could draw public support in his direction. And he is hurt by lingering charges of personal and public improprieties.

Clinton would be facing, too, a president who certainly is no Nixon in demeanor. President Bush is lively, warm, and usually optimistic. But he isn't likely to stir the crowds the way Kennedy did. The onlookers won't scream and leap for Bush.

Clinton has just enough of the Kennedy appeal that he might well make Bush look a bit drab by comparison. Kennedy was Mr. Personality in 1960. Clinton is the Mr. Personality of this campaign. This new Mr. Personality will likely stumble over his personal problems, leading Democrats say. Maybe.

But it is clear in the primary results that a lot of voters seem to be excusing Clinton for his alleged wrongdoing. Indeed, Clinton just might, with the help of his Kennedy-like personality, be able to go all the way.

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