Why Voters Go Ho-Hum to the Appearance of Wrongdoing

Has the political climate really changed so much since Watergate? Sen. Richard Lugar commented on this the other day. He thinks that public figures now are more ethical than they were back in those Richard Nixon days. "Everything is just much more out in the open," he said.

At this point this highly regarded Republican senator, whose ethical conduct has never been a matter of question, surprisingly spoke up for the Democrat in the White House. He said he could very well believe that those who had coffees with President Clinton probably had no influence on him - that he just sat there and "let them babble on" without paying much attention to what was being said.

Senator Lugar was being questioned about whether he thought some of Mr. Clinton's visitors who appeared to have Chinese connections might have influenced Clinton. He didn't seem to feel this was too likely. At any rate, he wanted more conclusive evidence before arriving at a condemnatory conclusion.

A journalist at the Monitor breakfast where the senator was the guest observed questioningly: "But doesn't a president have the responsibility not to do things that would raise suspicions that his actions might be interpreted as inappropriate or even illegal? Shouldn't a president scrupulously avoid even the appearance of possibly doing wrong?"

Lugar agreed to this but added that he didn't think that the voters today generally would hold a president to that high a standard of conduct.

Indeed, the polls showing Clinton's public standing still high indicate that the public isn't holding the president to this "appearance" standard.

But - I ask myself - if Lugar is right about there being an "improved" ethical climate these days because so much now is "out in the open," why isn't the public more upset over the appearance of presidential improprieties or misdeeds that is now so clearly visible?

The answer, I think, is that the public has become accustomed to hearing, almost constantly, about one kind of unethical-conduct charge or another being lodged against members of both parties. Every day for months on end accusations were made against Newt Gingrich. And Clinton has been the subject of frequent investigatory stories - often daily - since he came to the White House.

The blatant under-the-table shenanigans of officeholders may be largely behind us. At the turn of the century bribery was rampant in our governments, particularly at the big-city level. And I recall how, back when I was covering state governments in the 1950s and '60s, I was finding "boodling" a common practice among state legislators who thought nothing of taking cash from special interests they represented.

Legislation following big scandals has curbed much of this old-time political corruption. Now politics is practiced increasingly out where all can see - or where a probing reporter can more readily discover inappropriate activity. And the stories of alleged misconduct - usually focused on how campaign money is raised or spent - multiply to the point where the average newspaper reader or TV watcher finally says, "Ho-hum."

Likewise I think that much of the public has become inured to the many charges involving extramarital relations that have been leveled at the president. It seems to me that the American people have pretty much either condemned Clinton or forgiven him for these alleged failings and have become tired of hearing the much-repeated accusations. That widespread public ennui over Clinton's alleged peccadilloes was, indeed, a part of the last election, doing much to enable the president to survive.

And he will continue to survive unless his hand should be caught in a very big cookie jar - like a memo or tape showing he was going to change foreign policy in return for a big contribution from someone representing another nation. Then the public would wake up. Then there would be a "smoking gun" that could lead to impeachment.

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