The Readers Scold - and I Listen

Readers now are letting me know in no uncertain terms whether they like or don't like recent columns of mine that criticize the president for what I see as his apparent failure to adhere to family values in his marital relationship.

Indeed, I've not seen such a heavy inflow of heated letters since the Watergate period when many readers thought I was being too hard on Richard Nixon - until the tapes surfaced.

Will the Paula Jones decision - obviously a political victory for the president - somehow reduce the public's focus on his alleged acts of infidelity in the White House? Or will Ken Starr, through his probes, keep that public interest alive? I will be watching to see whether the letters to me continue their heavy flow and the emotional tone in which their writers have been criticizing or supporting my columns.

Anyhow, I now have two piles of letters of about equal height on my desk. The readers in one pile are expressing strong, sometimes even passionate, support of my contention. Their common message: "Right on."

It is only fair to give space here to those who have been unhappy with what I have been writing. I've had my opportunity to say what I think. They should have theirs.

First, there's a particularly hard-hitting letter from a woman in Massachusetts:

"Mr. Clinton appears to be unable or unwilling to control himself around women, and if half of what we read and hear is true, it is quite disgusting. I wouldn't want my daughter around him, and I feel sorry for Mrs. Clinton, but she appears to be dealing with it in a way that works for her."

Then she puts the next four words in italics: "It is between them."

At another point in her letter she asserts: "We chose Clinton over Dole, apparently a far more moral man in the areas currently under discussion, because we preferred Clinton's policies for the country, and we still do.

"It doesn't mean that 'personal values and traits don't mean too much,' as you choose to infer, but only that we necessarily evaluate the entire package presented by each of the few choices available to voters. We rank our presidents, unlike our friends, more on their public policies than on their private behaviors."

A woman from Iowa, who describes herself as a retired missionary, is clearly upset with the press in general and with this member of the press in particular: "I do believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt. Why are you considering the president guilty, when the courts have not done so? When this is all said and done, I really believe the media will come out looking overeager and overextended. It surprises me that you got caught up in that frenzy."

A man from the state of Washington has this to say: "I judge him [Clinton] as president on how he conducts matters of government. I may agree with him or I may differ on any number of issues - which I do. But unless his private behavior diminished his ability to govern according to the Constitution, I leave his working out of his own personal salvation to him and him alone."

A woman from Connecticut assails me with a point of view that runs through many of these letters: "As one who believes President Clinton, I resent your statement that I then am one who no longer supports family values, or I put them secondary to matters of my own self-interest. Just maybe I support the larger values that Clinton works for, which include all kinds of help for families."

A woman from California writes an angry letter: "The whole show is terrible. Mr. Starr is running amok. And you write your column, Mr. Sperling. Are you perfect? I'm absolutely not - and to be honest I would hate to have any faults I have broadcast everywhere by such self-righteous people."

Well, that should give you a little idea of what my critics are saying. My reaction: "Ouch!"

But what really hurts is a letter I received from a minister in Pennsylvania for being "slow," as he sees it, in writing about Clinton's alleged misconduct. "Shame on you for your credulity," he writes, "in allowing yourself to be gulled by that indecent man. It has apparently taken you six years to have the scales drop from your eyes."

Ah me! And what is my response? I'm still sticking to my guns - which you will doubtless see in ensuing columns. But this is my critics' day in court, as lawyers might put it. I've had mine on this subject, for several weeks now.

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