A White House Indiscretion Is a Betrayal of Family Values

Will I ever learn? Back in July 1995 I wrote that I couldn't believe a poll that found that two-thirds of the public, including two-thirds of Republicans as well as Democrats, believed that President Clinton's character problems weren't all that important.

I also wrote that I wished I was still in the "hard-charging phase of my life" when I would check out that poll's findings by flying around the country and talking to a lot of people. I added that my instincts told me that people generally still react very strongly and very negatively to Mr. Clinton's extramarital problems.

Well, my reader response was instant and large - and most of it was challenging my point of view. A common theme: "Some of us feel Clinton has done a number of good things that are seldom mentioned and we are willing to forgive, or at least place in a larger context, a personal failing of some years ago."

And now I'm hearing that same refrain from many of those who are responding to my contention that if the president has had an extra-marital relationship in the White House, it does matter greatly: It demeans the Presidency and sets a terrible example for our children.

Oh, yes, some people agree wholeheartedly with me. But my impression at this point is that Mr. Clinton is going to be forgiven by most Americans if, indeed, he has been stepping over the line again.

Back in 1995 when I wrote that column I found that an oft-expressed reader opinion was one that asserted that personal peccadilloes had nothing to do with morality: "Let's talk about character," one Westerner wrote. "Newt Gingrich was once a member of the Sierra Club and a staunch environmentalist. But this is not 'politically correct' with the right wing, so he is as ready as all the Republicans to destroy 25 years of environmental progress to appease big-business interests."

One letter, from a woman living in the Southwest, didn't mince words: "Mr. Sperling, your bias is showing. President Clinton's extramarital problems are between him and his wife. They are none of my or your business."

I'm sticking to my guns. But while I may be a slow learner, I'm now beginning to have to acknowledge that most Americans no longer are supportive of family values - or if they are supportive of these values they put them secondary to matters of their own self-interest. That's what is behind those high ratings of the president's performance.

In the spring of 1996, a poll found that 70 percent of the electorate believed that Bob Dole shared the personal moral values most Americans try to live by while less than 50 percent thought the same of Clinton. Yet that same poll showed the voters would return Clinton to the presidency by a decided 10 percent margin.

My conclusion then was this: "A new poll gives support to what some readers have been trying to tell me for some time now: that personal traits and values don't mean too much to voters when they are voting for president."

But what if Clinton is found to have committed perjury and/or obstructed justice in dealing with intern Monica Lewinsky? And what about these more-recent allegations of a Clinton sexual encounter with another White House employee, Kathleen Willey? What if it becomes clearer that the president has also lied under oath about that?

Despite misgivings I would like to think that the American people - even if they like this very likable president and think he's doing a good job - won't put up with illegality in the White House.

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