Americans gaze into their moral mirror

The scandal surrounding President Clinton has touched off a kind of moral introspection among some Americans.

Nearly one-fifth of those surveyed in a nationwide poll said Mr. Clinton's actions have prompted them to reexamine their own standards. The poll also found this moral mirror-gazing is more common among those who disapprove of the way Clinton is doing his job.

The survey of 800 Americans was commissioned by The Christian Science Monitor and conducted by Technometrica Institute of Policy and Politics (TIPP), based in Oradell, N.J.

Terry Tauser, a high school English teacher in St. Louis, was one of those surveyed. She and many people she knows, including her students, "are thinking a lot about lies" these days, she says. They're thinking about how it's possible to technically tell the truth yet still mislead people.

"For me," she says, Clinton's carefully chosen words about Monica Lewinsky "reinforce the idea that I want to be strictly truthful - and not play those games."

Ms. Tauser says she and her students are also critical of Clinton's marital infidelity. The students, she says, "would like to think they have more self-control" than the president.

Others are more conscious of the consequences of adultery and evasion or lying. Phyllis Krutsch, an educational consultant and mother of two, lives in Washburn, Wis. The Clinton scandal has made her "more aware of how important our decisions are - and what the consequences of bad choices are."

She adds that as people think about these consequences, one positive outcome from the scandal will be "that affairs may become less acceptable."

Indeed, the poll results signal that "people are rethinking the proper rules for sexual conduct," says Linda Hirshman, an author and professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. "The good thing that's happening as a result of all this," she says, is that the long-standing "facade of monogamous fidelity" is crumbling.

The emerging lesson of the scandal is: "If you make a promise, you've got to keep it," Professor Hirshman adds.

Yet others are not so swayed.

For some, simple outrage

For Kate Dunsmore, an administrative worker at the University of Washington in Seattle, the Clinton scandal and impeachment proceedings have prompted outrage - not moral introspection. If anything, the saga highlights the need for a bigger distinction between Americans' public and private lives.

"It's none of Congress's business," she says. "We've got to give people more privacy."

Like most Americans, Ms. Dunsmore approves of the job Clinton is doing.

Indeed, the poll found that just 12 percent of those who approve of Clinton's job performance have reexamined their morals in the wake of the scandal. But many more of those who disapprove of his performance - 27 percent - have done so.

Andrew Burt, who heads a software development firm in Denver, says he can "fully sympathize" with Clinton. "It's impossible to operate a society on the basis of everyone being totally open and honest," he says, adding, "I've certainly evaded questions before. It's part of being human - knowing when to tell the truth and when not to."

Adultery a private matter

As for the adultery, David Cole, a dockworker in San Francisco says simply, "that's between him and his wife." The lifelong Democrat and Roman Catholic says that because he wants a stable family he wouldn't have an affair, but for others - everyone from his neighbor to President Clinton - "what they do is their own business."

In the end, perhaps something in the middle of the two extremes found in the poll may prevail.

"You can't name many men who wouldn't do the same thing," says poll respondent Johnny Farmer about Clinton's evasive words.

The resident of Raleigh, N.C., says the whole affair "will certainly make people be a little more sensitive to what they do. People may try to not put themselves in circumstances where they have to lie" And he adds, "It'll sure make them think again."

How this poll was done

The Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll was conducted nationwide Oct. 2 to 7, 1998, among a sample of 800 adults, 18 years old or older. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

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