Clinton's Hard Work Earns Needed Respect

PERHAPS this is as good a time as any to ask myself a few questions about President Clinton and see if I can come up with some answers. Richard L. Strout used to do this from time to time in his Monitor writings. He would tell me it was useful in clearing out his own cobwebs. That's my purpose today.

Why isn't the president awash in Whitewater the way Richard Nixon was in Watergate?

People forget that Watergate developed very slowly. It might have died early and been forgotten had there not been a driving political force that pushed the probe forward: a dislike and even hatred of Nixon among a large number of Americans and especially among members of the press. Much of this feeling against Nixon has faded with the years - as evidenced by the widespread outpouring of respect and affection for the former president at his passing. Many people considered Nixon an elder statesman and valued his advice on foreign affairs.

Obviously, Whitewater doesn't hold the potential of Watergate - at least what we know of it today. But the press's scrutiny into the business dealings of both of the Clintons doesn't have a passionate drive behind it.

Most members of the media with whom I traveled during the Nixon presidential races against John Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern openly showed their contempt for the Californian. Reporters for the most part seem rather to like the Clintons, particularly Mrs. Clinton.

At any rate, I have sensed no hatred of the Clintons among the reporters I mingle with regularly at the Monitor breakfast group. During the campaign some of them were poking a bit at Bill Clinton - calling him ``Slick Willy.'' But that talk vanished when it appeared he was on his way to becoming president.

Why was Nixon so hated?

That answer would require a book-length response. But in brief, many Democrats felt he was questioning their loyalty to their country because they were not fervent anti-Communists. Many people just did not like him as a person. They called him ``Tricky Dick'' and branded him as a man without moral anchors.

At the same time it should be said that Nixon, to the end of his time in office and long afterward, had a sizable number of supporters who stood by him even in his darkest hours. At one point during the Carter administration a poll showed Nixon with a higher standing than President Carter. Of course, we are talking about a core of the to-the-bitter-end backers of Nixon, which held at about 25 percent to 30 percent of the public.

Is there then a widespread affection for the president?

No. ``Affection'' is the wrong word. Clinton's supporters aren't expressing much all-out warmth for Clinton. Women seem to like him better than men do. But nowhere do I hear the almost passionate words common among those who talked of their love for Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Dwight Eisenhower when they were in the White House.

If Clinton is not ``hated'' and, if at the same time, he is not ``loved,'' what does this president have going for him in terms of public support?

Many people, even those who voted for George Bush or Ross Perot, are finding something in Clinton that they can't help admiring: what a hard worker he has turned out to be.

One afternoon Clinton is throwing out a first pitch in Chicago. That evening he is in Charlotte, N.C., rooting for his Arkansas basketball team in the NCAA finals. We soon see Clinton at the ballet at the Kennedy Center, then moving around the country in three town meetings, and then coming back to Washington to throw his backing behind a crime bill.

Oh yes, many people - both strong liberals and strong conservatives - think Clinton is not showing a satisfactory ideological direction in his initiatives thus far. And many voters think that in his private life Clinton has shown no moral compass. But there is a lot of admiration out there for this president's willingness to give his all to his job.

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