After Clinton: What Comes Next?

When former Democratic congressional star, Pat Schroeder, was asked at breakfast the other morning what President Clinton's "legacy" would be, she searched her thought for a moment and then said, "survival."

We laughed a bit, as we always do when the witty Pat sits down with us over breakfast. But she may have it right. Before mentioning the economy or welfare reform or education or whichever Clinton accomplishment will later be perceived as memorable, historians may well cite as most noteworthy this president's ability to withstand the many accusations that could have toppled him.

There's been the Whitewater land deal, the Gennifer Flowers tapes, the letter to Colonel Holmes, the FBI files, the travel office firings, the campaign-finance scandals, Monica Lewinsky, Kathleen Willey, Paula Jones, and on and on. Up to now Clinton has withstood these threats. Ken Starr still is lurking; so even bigger problems for the president may lie ahead. But the feeling in Washington today, among Republicans as well as Democrats, is that Bill Clinton will somehow survive.

But let's face it folks: Whether we admire Mr. Clinton or not, we can all agree that we've had an interesting president. Never a dull moment. While I'm watching Clinton day after day as he copes with imminent political disaster, I'm reminded of the silent flickers I saw as a boy, "The Perils of Pauline," where the heroine, week after week in that long-playing serial, would at the very last moment escape her enemies' clutches.

Now the question arises: What will the voters want in their next president? More of the same? Or are they ready for a quieter period? Are they, indeed, hungering for a rest from scandal?

I've asked this question in one way or another to a half dozen public figures who dropped by our breakfast in recent weeks. One was President Carter's highly regarded press secretary, Jody Powell, who said that anyone seeking the presidency next time will, as far as personal morality is concerned, have to be "as pure as driven snow."

Other breakfast guests have made similar observations: That presidential candidates next time around will be required to pass the "pure-as-driven-snow test."

Jimmy Carter certainly got an "A" when it came to character. There was never a question about his marital fidelity. This daily-Bible-reading Baptist, who taught in Sunday school, was, indeed, a straight arrow.

And Mr. Carter seemed to have just the character traits the public wanted in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Carter promised a presidency that would have high standards - "As good as the American people."

And with a campaign that emphasized the need for honesty and integrity in government, and particularly in the presidency, Carter came out of nowhere to make it to the White House. He beat an opponent, Gerald Ford, whose personal morality and integrity were also unchallenged, but who carried the burden of having pardoned the discredited Richard Nixon.

There's another theory about what the majority of Americans will want in their next president: that a more sophisticated electorate has emerged, one that is more tolerant of excesses in personal morality. Observers who hold this point of view cite the polls which show Clinton riding high despite the sex-related allegations he's been facing.

The polls do, indeed, show the public is quite satisfied with Clinton's performance. But when asked simply what they think of Clinton "as a person," many more Americans disapprove of him than approve.

In April, according to one poll of the American people that focused on Clinton's character, 47 percent said they disapproved to 39 percent who said they approved. A number of other polls are in agreement.

I think that it is clear that the voters will welcome a straight-arrow type of presidential candidate in 2000.

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