Clinton's Resilience

A PRESIDENT'S lot is not a happy one, to paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan. At least, that is how 52 percent of Mr. Clinton's fellow citizens see it. According to a recent ABC News-Washington Post poll, a majority of Americans would prefer a week in jail to four years in the White House.

Why would so many people rather be incarcerated than inaugurated? To put the question the opposite way, why would any sensible person want his wife, his daughter, his saxophone, his cat, his haircut, or his Big Mac to be ridiculed without end?

Here, ironically, is one area where Clinton has stimulated the economy beyond Reagan and Bush. According to Beltway reports, bashing the president has become a flourishing souvenir industry as never before, featuring T-shirts, bumper stickers, and buttons that invite one to "Read Bill's flips" while declaring: "Don't blame me, I voted for George Bush."

Nor is Clinton a lone political phenomenon of the 1990s in being disapproved of though elected - more severely criticized than many a past defeated candidate. Britain's Prime Minister John Major makes Clinton appear positively popular by comparison. A recent poll indicates that more British voters would pick Margaret Thatcher as prime minister than would support three other Tories - including Mr. Major, who was fourth.

Combine the diminishing esteem for politicians with the growing complexity of global politics - the faltering economies everywhere, the spreading brush fires of ethnic wars - and the little joke about taking a term in jail ahead of a term in the White House becomes less amusing. For this is a dangerous business, matching overwhelming problems to leaders perceived as underwhelming.

With the end of the cold war, the cry for change became an expression of hope in new leadership and fresh solutions. Alas, how quickly, how sourly a general sense of helplessness has set in!

But as the flak flies upward, it may be worth noting that the man actually in the White House would not choose to escape to jail, even for a minute. In the face of Bosnia, the flooded Mississippi, and Bob Dole, Clinton has not lost his enthusiasm for his job. Whatever his other failings, the Clinton resilience constitutes a small personal triumph that should be acknowledged with gratitude in these disgruntled times. His indefatigable hope may wear down the cynics yet.

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