Presidential Crisis Tempers Student Idealism

When he was in high school, Jason Rawn ran through Little Rock delivering "Elect Clinton" fliers to schools and businesses for the Young Democrats of Arkansas. When Mr. Clinton won the presidency in 1992, Mr. Rawn rejoiced.

"His victory was a big deal for me," says Rawn, now a freshman at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. "It really inspired me. Now I'm interested in [getting into] politics big time."

For him, the newest Washington debacle is water off a duck's back - probably the work of Clinton's enemies. But others wonder if the allegations that Clinton had a sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky will, like Watergate in the 1970s, tarnish government service for a generation of young people.

If money is the mother's milk of politics, youthful idealism might be considered the muscle of American democracy - providing legions of staffers to continually renew the nation's political system.

The stamp of youth in the Clinton administration - including a host of 20-something White House staffers - has been an inspiration to many students who are encouraged when they see people nearly their own age running the country.

Despite the current controversy, Rawn and many of his college friends stand firm in supporting the president.

"They're shocked, of course," Rawn says. "But they're going to back the president and support him until he's proven guilty - and still support him after that."

Little unqualified support

Among college students interviewed by the Monitor, most said they would wait for facts to be known. But many worried the scandal will hurt the country. Few gave the president the sort of unqualified support offered by Rawn.

"I think there is a double standard in this country's political system that has to go," says Elizabeth Hogan, a Boston University sophomore majoring in English. "It sounds nice to say, 'Let's look at his professional performance and separate his personal life from that,' but that's not what I expect from a president."

Former White House intern Matthew Babcock, a senior at Wichita State University in Kansas, served in the office of presidential personnel from January to May 1996 - the same period that Ms. Lewinsky is alleged to have had a relationship with the president.

"When I was accepted [as an intern] I was elated," he says. "I felt very privileged to have that opportunity."

But in only one week, Mr. Babcock has gone from being proud of his time at the White House to being embarrassed. Since the crisis, the gloss is off his tenure there, although he still respects those he worked with. He did not know Lewinsky, he says.

"I didn't go in with rose-colored glasses," he says. "I know how certain things are in Washington. But on a personal level this whole episode has blackened the experience."

One of the puzzles for Babcock is how Lewinsky somehow came to know the president well enough to give him a hug - as shown in videotapes of the president greeting White House interns.

With about 150 new White House interns arriving every three months, the president typically only briefly meets the interns, he says.

"A big part of me hopes it is not true," he says of the allegations against Clinton. "But having worked there, it's hard to believe he could get to know any one of them well enough to give them a hug twice."

Questioning public service

Babcock hopes to get a job in politics, but he is not counting on it. Besides, the personal pride in a public-service career has plummeted for him.

"Working at the White House was something I used to be proud of," he says. "Now if I tell someone I was a White House intern in 1996 I'm almost waiting for someone to make a joke."

In the narrow corridors of the political-science building at Northeastern University in Boston, politics majors like Cara Lanigan are debating the scandal's implications.

Ms. Lanigan, a freshman, served a few months ago as a page in the Maryland state Senate. She chastises the media, as do many other students, for excess focus on the sex issue.

"Politicians are always trying to look powerful," she says. "I think there's too much focus in the press on the sex scandal and should be a lot more focus on whether the president has committed perjury."

David Knowles, also a Northeastern political-science major is a junior pondering his own career direction - and how he will view the president if it turns out any of the various allegations are true.

"I try to let his [Clinton's] personal life be his life and let what he's done in office and for the country be what sets my opinion of him," he says. "I'm keeping an open mind. I'd like to see him come out of this."

Although he does hope to work in politics some day, Mr. Knowles says that after seeing what Clinton has gone through he does not want to run for public office because of the intense scrutiny.

"I'd rather be an aide," he says.

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