C'mon People, Try Harder!

The public isn't giving a clear signal on Clinton's 'punishment'

George Gobel, a favorite TV comedian of mine from a past generation, reported one Labor Day that fatal accidents on the road were running behind projections. He wagged his finger and said, "Now, some of you people are just not trying."

That comes to mind as we contemplate a Congress trying to figure out what punishment fits President Clinton's sin and finding the public singularly unhelpful. Having blamed almost everyone else for the mess we are in - the president, the prosecutor, the media - isn't it time to say that the public has fallen down on its job?

Oh, for the Nixon days when the public sent a clear signal. There had been six weeks of televised Senate hearings on Watergate, the Saturday night massacre - the firing of the special prosecutor, and the Oval Office tapes - and the tape gap. When Sen. Barry Goldwater told President Nixon he was washed up and would surely be ousted, he spoke for a national consensus.

But the House Judiciary Committee worked differently then. It held hearings in private and, when it made up its mind about impeachable offenses, it enlisted public support. This Judiciary Committee has set the process on its ear. It dishes out the video tape and the piles of documents. Then it looks to the public for decisions.

Members of Congress will tell you that since the Starr report and the videotape release they've been flooded with angry messages coming down on all sides of the issue. Anger does not add up to a course of action. The opinion polls are not very helpful. They say the people deplore Mr. Clinton's character, but like the way he does his job. The people don't like independent counsel Kenneth Starr. Preponderantly they don't want the president impeached. They don't want him to be forced to resign. They do want him to be censured or reprimanded or whatever - you know, taken to the woodshed.

But the congressional Republicans aren't ready to settle for a reprimand. So congressional leaders wrestle with public attitudes that they find contradictory, ambiguous, and generally unhelpful. The politicians can't even figure out if Clinton will be an asset for them in the November election.

Take the case of Don Page, Republican candidate for Congress in Raleigh, N.C. He was the first to latch onto the presidential crisis with television commercials tying the incumbent, Bob Etheridge, to Clinton. But he was criticized in the local press for running against Clinton, instead of his opponent. Subsequently the Republican National Committee cautioned against a possible backlash.

The videotape testimony seems to have increased the fear of backlash. People remain angry, disgusted, but not clearly focused on a way out of the mess. As Andrew Kohut, the student of public opinion, wrote a year ago in his book "Deconstructing Distrust": "American attitudes are weighted down by discontent with the dishonesty of public officials."

Politicians, always ready to rise above principle and give the people what they want, have a grievance. They can't get a clear message to guide their faltering footsteps.

Some of you people out there are just not trying.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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