Politics and Fair Play

PRESIDENT Clinton's apparently impromptu outburst last Friday against what he called ``a constant unremitting drumbeat of negativism'' from his conservative critics seems to have been generated by honest anger and frustration.

In a radio interview the president mentioned popular talk-show host Rush Limbaugh and televangelist Jerry Falwell by name. Mr. Limbaugh has been an unremitting critic of the president and the Rev. Mr. Falwell has been distributing a videotape making unsubstantiated accusations about the personal lives of Mr. Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first lady.

The political arena has never been the place for the fainthearted, and Clinton should have no reason to think that his presidency won't continue to be subjected to intense scrutiny by the media and his political opponents. Nor should he suggest too strongly that he is the subject of unprecedented vilification. In recent history, Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon come quickly to mind as presidents who endured intense personal hatred from some quarters.

That said, should we concede that politics is a game played without rules? Those who ridicule the president's religious beliefs, for example, or toss conjectural mud hoping that some will stick, do so at the peril of alienating the majority of fair-minded Americans. Wrapping political invective in a cloak of religious outrage demeans the important role religious beliefs have in uplifting political dialogue. Such tactics have nothing to do with the Bible of the Sermon on the Mount and its Golden Rule.

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