When impeachment meant something

PUBLIC REACTION

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What does it say about the American public - or at least much of that public - when it shrugs off the president's impeachment and, within a few hours, is giving him an approval rating nearly equal to the best in his presidency? A Washington Post-ABC poll showed Bill Clinton's approval at 66 percent. And a CNN poll gave the president a 72 percent rating.

A few percentage points in this poll increase must be attributed to the strike on Iraq. Americans generally hailed this use of the military to deal with Saddam Hussein. But the verdict remained clear: Most Americans are taking this impeachment quite lightly.

As I grew up and began to learn a little about American history, I came to believe that nothing worse could happen to a president than to be impeached. I was told by my teachers that Andrew Johnson had been impeached and, thereby, permanently and terribly disgraced.

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I later learned of the way Congress had dealt with President Johnson (when he came within a vote of being convicted and thrown out of office by the Senate). It's actions were colored with partisanship, and the outcome was therefore subject to question.

But nothing has changed my view that impeachment goes beyond an indictment and puts a brand of opprobrium on a president - and is therefore deserving of severe public criticism.

So once again I'm asking as I have for many months now: Where is the outrage out there? I thought this outrage over Mr. Clinton's conduct would show up in the November election. It didn't. And I'm stunned that the impeachment hasn't put the president in the public's doghouse. As some observers are putting it, Clinton is being treated as though he has merely been rapped on the knuckles by the House with a finding of "Impeachment Lite."

And "why? why? why?" this old-timer among political observers asks. Indeed, as part of some Christmas calls to old friends, I've asked this question. And they have been just as baffled as I.

But, of course, these friends are of an older generation, too. And they all were in one way or another coming to the same answer before my calls were ended. They all suggested that the next generation after us, and particularly those who were a part of the protest movement in the 1960s, had taken over our country and brought in a "new morality."

This answer is most persuasive. But I think there is something more at work in what author William Bennett has dubbed "The Death of Outrage."

I think there is a general public indifference these days to what is going on in Washington. In fact, I think that just about everything that happens in Washington (the ups and downs of Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Robert Livingston, et al.) is being greeted with a big yawn out in Peoria, Ill. and Walla Walla, Wash. Yes, that's an overstatement. But it is true that most people are focused on their own lives and have become almost detached from the drama unfolding in their nation's capital. Pollsters for months now have heard the same public lament about various developments in Lewinskygate: "We're tired of it. Let's get it over with."

Indeed, it's not only those who are outraged at Clinton's behavior who are noting this lack of public distress over what the president has done. Pro-Clinton people also have been perplexed over why those who were opposed to impeachment hadn't been more vocal and demonstrative in expressing their feelings.

I saw the host of a TV panel show - a man who is known for defending Clinton - as he asked, "Why aren't the people who don't want Clinton impeached rising up and screaming about it?" He added, "Where is the outrage?"

So how do we explain all this support for the beleaguered president? Doubtless changing views of what is right and what is wrong are involved. But perhaps it is mainly a public preoccupied with its own affairs and thriving in the booming economy telling pollsters it still approved of Clinton's performance.

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