Presidential Teflon - How Tolerant Have Voters Become?

Whatever Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana lacked as a presidential candidate, it was not character. He has been regarded as a straight arrow since he first entered the public arena as Indianapolis's mayor years ago. And he kept that high-principled image during a primary campaign where he was always the "good guy" but too often the "dull fellow." So Mr. Lugar has more than enough character credentials to hold forth persuasively on that subject. At a recent Monitor breakfast he responded to the hot topic: the president's ability to deal with right and wrong.

"The country is at peace by and large. The economy is pretty good. But the thing that is going for Clinton is that there is a very high tolerance for character difficulties: an enormous threshold [among voters] before this will make any difference." A reporter commented: "I was wondering ..., if this president had something like a Chappaquiddick whether it would make any difference to voters."

"I don't know," Lugar replied. "Clinton's like a ship at sea that has taken one hit after another. He's been torpedoed backward and forward.... He has amazing resilience."

A pause and then Lugar went on: "It seems that most people believe that politicians aren't very good citizens to begin with. It takes shocking, bizarre, outrageous behavior even to register with the voters, even at the presidential level."

Public opinion polls have been telling us about the emergence of this new tolerance. The latest of these shows Bob Dole far ahead of Clinton (52 percent to 31 percent) when the question "Who has the higher moral character?" is asked. But when these CNN-Gallup pollsters ask, "Who would you vote for?," the president far outdistances Dole, 57 percent to 38 percent.

It has also been quite evident for some time that public tolerance of what was once regarded as unacceptable personal conduct has been increasing. Whether a presidential candidate has been divorced or not seems of little or no consequence to the voters today. How many, for example, are aware - or care - that Dole has been divorced?

Nelson Rockefeller missed his opportunity to become president in 1964 because of his divorce. There were aspects of that divorce that were particularly bad for Rockefeller: the appearance that he had shelved an older woman, the mother of his children, for a younger woman. But divorce itself had long been regarded as a bar to the presidency. Thus, Adlai Stevenson retained the outward appearance of a marriage when running in the 1950s, and Wendell Wilkie brought back a wife, whom he seldom saw, to campaign with him in the 1940s.

Tolerance of extramarital relations seems to depend on circumstances. Gary Hart was dead as a candidate when the press caught him fooling around. But Clinton's womanizing seemed to be forgiven by many voters after Mrs. Clinton "stood by her man." What about public tolerance of possibly illegal financial/political activities? Complex "Whitewater" and "Travelgate" charges stay in headlines. But they haven't as yet cut into the president's popularity.

And now "filegate," the improper White House possession of more than 400 FBI investigative files, that gets into abuse of civil liberties.

So liberal Democrats join in decrying the alleged misconduct of presidential employees, and say Clinton must take responsibility for the climate in which this came about. Will these accusations stick? Or is Bill Clinton - not Ronald Reagan - the real Teflon president?

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