Clinton, Too, Has a Teflon Coating

If the president is in any real trouble over Paula Jones, campaign financing, or what Kenneth Starr is digging up, you don't get even a hint of this when you go out and listen to the voters.

I was on vacation in Idaho and Oregon in August. So I didn't have a notebook in hand. But I was listening.

Many people seem to be shrugging their shoulders over what they see as a president whose conduct is often explained as, "Like us - he's human." Others who see their president as being immoral in his private life are not at all forgiving. But they think Bill Clinton is too elusive to be caught.

They point to Mr. Clinton's proven record - during the 1992 campaign - of being able to evade his accusers. And they conclude that if he could survive the Gennifer Flowers and draft-dodging allegations back then, he is pretty much scandal-resistant.

In one group I was in, the people were clearly opposed to what they saw as Clinton's personal misconduct. However, one of the women spoke up in his defense with this comment: "But it's good to have a president who is highly intelligent." She obviously thought that Reagan or Bush hadn't measured up to that requirement.

At a fast-food restaurant I asked the woman behind the counter what she thought of Clinton: "He's a neat guy," she said. Her assessment didn't go beyond the president's appearance and personality.

In another Western setting I heard a group of businessmen discussing Clinton. All were talking critically of him. But the tone was jocular.

These conversations were typical. Most people rather liked Clinton. But even among his critics there was no hatred, no anger. There was nothing even close to the wrath that welled up among the populace when Watergate was unfolding.

When I returned home, I had a letter from the mother of a Republican congressman waiting for me. She is no fan of Clinton's. She wrote, in part: "Clinton is truly amazing. He must have a weather vane inside that tells him when to shift gears! Every time the Republicans have something going for them, he grabs the brass ring - takes all the credit - and leaves them battered and bruised, wondering what happened. And even those who see Clinton as a chameleon don't seem to care. More the pity. The man has charisma!"

In essence, this perceptive letter writer was saying, I think, that Clinton's political success - and that would also mean his ability to withstand charges that would have sunk most politicians - lies in his personal magnetism.

Actually, from what I was hearing and seeing on my trip, this country is a relatively happy one. I observed no real discontent. People are working; many are thriving. And President Clinton must be given much credit for presiding over a nation that, again relatively, is in such good shape.

Indeed, it is America's prosperity that explains Clinton's high approval ratings, together with his personal appeal.

Is one to conclude that a scandal-stained president - should that come about - will go unscathed? No. If the Paula Jones case produces convincing examples of the president (then governor) making crude advances to her and to some other women: Well, it's bound to lower Clinton's popularity rating. Also, should congressional and Ken Starr probings damage Clinton badly, his approval rating is sure to go down.

But Americans I've been listening to - plus the polls - tell me that people like Clinton enough to let him find a way to survive.

And how about talk of possible GOP presidential candidates? There was little or none of this - nothing like what we were hearing four years ago when Republicans were quite excited about Colin Powell and what they saw as his potential to defeat Bill Clinton in 1996.

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