Mystery Men

Big mysteries hang over us as we head toward the outcome of this tight election: First, why are many liberals sticking with Ralph Nader when they know they are contributing to the possible defeat of Al Gore? Second, is this confident, campaigning president the same Bill Clinton who, only a short time ago, was suffering the disgrace of impeachment? How could such a comeback have come about?

The Nader question reminds me of 1968. Eugene McCarthy attracted many of the liberal American youths to his side when he became the principal political advocate of ending the Vietnam War. Mr. McCarthy won that position in the first presidential primary, held in New Hampshire, where he embarrassed President Johnson by almost beating him on the war issue.

During the course of that political year, first Robert Kennedy, and later, Hubert Humphrey, sought to lure away the youthful anti-Vietnam supporters of McCarthy. And some of these backers of "clean Gene" may finally have ended up voting for Mr. Humphrey against Richard Nixon.

But a few months after the election, which was won by Mr. Nixon, a University of Michigan survey showed that the bulk of McCarthy's supporters had stuck with him to an almost unimaginable extent. Many had not voted at all, but a large number of those young McCarthy backers had ended up by voting - if you can believe it - for Nixon.

Obviously, these young liberals were angered by those other Democratic presidential candidates - who argued they were just as antiwar and just as liberal as McCarthy - trying to pry them away from their favorite, McCarthy. How else can one explain that big vote for Republican Nixon? It was a very close election. Could it be that disgruntled McCarthyites won that election for Nixon?

I suggest that when many Americans decided to go with Mr. Nader in this election, they bonded with him personally and emotionally. They joined his cause - his crusade for genuine reform and a truly effective third party. And that's why Mr. Gore has had so much trouble pulling them away.

And if Nader's supporters stick with him, could it cost Gore this election? We'll know by Nov. 8.

Now, let's talk about the astonishing rehabilitation of the president - or shall we call it the magical renewal of his image that Mr. Clinton has somehow wrought?

It was just a year ago this November that Clinton started his fight for recovery with an interview in which he put the blame for his plight on what he called his "political opponents."

"I think that history will view this much differently," he said. "They [historians] will say I made a bad personal mistake, I paid a serious price for it, but that I was right to stand and fight for my country and my Constitution and its principles, and that the American people were very good to stand with me."

When I read this quote, I thought to myself: The president can't turn this scandal - and the facts - upside down in this way. The public won't accept this absurd version of what happened.

Yet, as Clinton has continued to pursue and expand on this approach, it appears that he has, indeed, greatly improved his image. How else could he now go out on the campaign trail with the reasonable expectation that he can be a positive influence for getting out the Democratic vote?

Emboldened by polls showing that much of the public likes his performance in office, the president now has given an interview in which he says that impeachment was about politics, not policy, and that the Republicans should apologize for impeaching him.

Now that's simply nonsense. I'm confident that historians will see it as nonsense and conclude that Clinton's record was deeply marred by impeachment and the scandalous behavior that brought it about.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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