Clinton's Character: Is It Really Not an Issue?

A RECENT poll that has been given a lot of deserved respect comes up with one finding that I question: That two-thirds of the public, including two-thirds of Republicans, believes that President Clinton's character problems have been overplayed by the press.

Somehow that finding makes me wish I was still in the hard-charging reporter phase of my life. I'd like nothing better than to make some flights around the United States and talk to a lot of people - city folks, farmers, students, blue-collar workers, and on and on.

Maybe the Times-Mirror Center poll is correct: It is based on contacts with 2,000 people. But my instincts tell me that people generally still react to Mr. Clinton's extramarital "problems" as negatively as they do to other things they perceive as moral issues.

And they do get upset over moral issues. Recent surveys by pollsters for Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas indicate that Americans by a ratio of 2 to 1 believe that the country faces a moral crisis rather than an economic crisis. Senator Dole had these findings at hand when he decided to whack Hollywood for what he sees as producing films that cross the lines of "not just taste but of human dignity and decency."

Another poll shows that the public puts Hollywood at the bottom of the list of institutions that reflect its values.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe people, or most people, now believe that Clinton's character is no longer a big issue. Maybe they feel that the president has put the marital problem behind him. Maybe, too, the Times-Mirror poll is right on a related finding: That two-thirds of the public says the press is making too much of the Whitewater affair.

But I'd like nothing better than to go out and talk to a lot of people and find out for myself.

Back in the 1950s I was a great admirer of Samuel Lubell, a reporter who through sheer hard work and diligence was able to find out what Americans had on their minds. He would spend hours with people, asking scores of questions. His findings then were based on weeks of questioning - often months if he was seeking out national trends. I watched his work closely and I cannot remember a time when Lubell didn't get it right.

Polls are valuable if well done. Also, in recent years polls have become better. I see fewer of those surveys that predict a close race that turns out to be a rout - or just the opposite.

Back in the 1960s and early '70s the Monitor used to conduct its own political surveys. Ours were not at all scientific - nor did we claim that they were. We merely had highly regarded political reporters giving us their assessments on issues, candidates, and races from the states where they were located. The reporters were in all 50 states, and each was known for "getting around" and for being privy to the latest political information.

By and large our findings turned out to be as good as the big, "more scientific" polls of that time. And we could do them much faster. I recall that well before the election we predicted the outcome of the 1968 presidential race and got it right, including what states Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey would win.

A few years later we did a survey that showed Republican leaders all over the country were ready for Nixon to step down - that they believed he would wreck GOP prospects in the next election. That poll sparked a phone call from then-Sen. Barry Goldwater's press secretary. "Come on over," he told me, "Barry is ready to talk about Nixon."

It was in that interview, which I had long sought, that Senator Goldwater uttered the words that, many observers have written, gave President Nixon the shove that made it inevitable that he must leave office. "Watergate," Mr. Republican said, "has the smell of Teapot Dome."

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