A Position of Moral Influence

A WASHINGTON Post editorial suggests that political operative Ed Rollins's statement, at a Monitor breakfast, that he paid people not to vote in the recent New Jersey gubernatorial election may well have had its redeeming features - that Mr. Rollins's assertion and subsequent denial of GOP efforts to suppress the black vote just might be bringing about a widespread effort to clean up politics.

Not only is the United States Department of Justice checking out the New Jersey election, looking for possible voting-rights violations, it now has moved into Philadelphia to probe possible voter fraud in recent elections there.

The Rollins account of vote suppression might have been a one-day story, particularly after his effort to recant. But it clearly was playing to a national audience that believed such misdeeds often occur, and it stirred indignation among voters from coast to coast. Political leaders of both parties are listening.

One said to me the other day that the parties could no longer serve up politics as usual - that it has to be better, cleaner. We shall see. If some fresh air is blown into the process, we may have Mr. Rollins to thank.

Sometimes, of course, the American public can't tell whether it's getting fresh air or hot air. What, for example, are Americans to think of the new allegations (or are they the same old ones?) of past sexual misbehavior on the part of their president?

On hearing these accusations, I was reminded of the Monitor breakfast of September 1991 when candidate Bill Clinton, accompanied by his wife, Hillary, went out of his way to tell us that the two of them had had ``problems'' in their relationship but had dealt with them. There had been many stories written about the Arkansas governor and his alleged extramarital relationships. Clearly, he was dealing with this subject, with Hillary at his side, agreeing.

The new allegations take President Clinton's alleged philandering well beyond that breakfast, even beyond the time when he made a similar assertion of marital fidelity on ``60 Minutes,'' and even to the time of his inauguration. It turns out that the two state troopers who have given detailed accounts of these alleged indiscretions to the media also have their own credibility problems. But Mr. and Mrs. Clinton clearly put the story into the public domain with their public response.

The defenders of the president take two positions: One, that these allegations are untrue - which they may be. And, two, that even if they were true, they are irrelevant to Clinton's value as president.

But, on the question of relevance, White House veteran reporter Helen Thomas says, ``Everything concerning a president is relevant.''

Here I'm reminded of the luncheon the president hosted for the Monitor press group just before Christmas. Twice he spoke of his effort to ``sort of use the presidency as a `bully pulpit' to communicate to the American people.''

``Bully pulpit'' was what President Teddy Roosevelt called the excellent position a president was in to exert moral authority and influence when communicating to the American people. Obviously there are a lot of Americans today who think that extramarital relations have nothing to do with a politician's overall ability to govern.

But there still are millions of Americans who would feel that if the allegations prove true that their president was indulging in such affairs, he would weaken his moral influence on the nation.

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