Voters stand ready to forgive - usually

When vice-presidential hopeful Richard Nixon went before the nation 50 years ago to offer an apologetic explanation of a questionable "trust fund" set up for his use, Americans took him at his word.

When Bill Clinton expressed "regret" for misleading the public about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, many Americans were willing to overlook his personal weakness because they appreciated his leadership strengths.

But for US Rep. Gary Condit, last Thursday's attempt to quell the notion that he had any role in the disappearance of intern Chandra Levy has brought little but nationwide opprobrium and a slow slippage of support here in his home district. In turn, it has revealed something about when and why Americans forgive their public servants.

From Nixon to Gary Hart, the variables of time and transgression, place and personality create a curious list of who among politicians has been forgiven and who has been forsaken. Yet, in general, voters tend to give elected officials a second chance. Most often, they draw the line only when politicians seem unrepentant or hypocritical - or both.

"Americans are extraordinarily forgiving for almost everything, and they always have been," says Sal Russo, a political consultant in California for 30 years. "It's an integral part of ... what it means to be an American."

To Mr. Russo, this national character arose in the early days of the republic, as the Founding Fathers rested their government on a religious base, in essence enshrining the Christian tenet of loving one another. But in practice, forgiveness in American political life has a relatively short history, spawned only in the last half of the 20th century as media outlets revealed more about politicians' lives.

What has emerged is a mix of idealism and practicality, with many voters longing for the open-hearted apology that evidences true regret, but also increasingly willing to abide those who are simply good politicians - even if they slip up.

"The public has been pretty sensible about forgiving," says Charles Jones, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Doubtful in Modesto

Here in Modesto, it's clear that most people would like to forgive Congressman Condit - though no one can tell exactly what offense needs forgiving. But for many, patience is beginning to wear thin.

Claudia Miller sits in the shade of a magnolia tree by the Farmers' Market on 17th and I Streets, peering out at the stands of melons and plums through large, circular glasses. She voted for Condit once but doesn't think she could again.

"What I expected was for a person of integrity to be representing me, and I don't think he's doing that," she says.

Mrs. Miller has lived here for six years, and she likes Modesto because it's a "big little town." The census may say Modesto is nearing 200,000 residents, but to people like Miller, it still seems like a close-knit community of fruit farmers who gather at events like this to sell peaches and munch kettle-cooked popcorn.

That's what Condit symbolized to many here. In a district that voted 53 percent for George W. Bush, Condit was a moderate, family-oriented Democrat. He was one of President Clinton's critics during impeachment proceedings.

That Condit represents a conservative district plays a part in how he has been received. Some political observers even suggest that were he from San Francisco, the story might not ever have come up.

Indeed, in liberal Massachusetts, former Rep. Gerry Studds was never penalized by voters for having a sexual liaison with a teenage congressional page, and Rep. Barney Frank survived the revelation that he hired a man who ran a gay sex ring out of his home. (Mr. Frank denied knowing about it.) Sen. Edward Kennedy, too, survived the Chappaquiddick incident, in which a young woman died in a car accident while he was driving.

Desperately seeking forthrightness

Still, others suggest something deeper is at work. Some voters are losing their trust in Condit. With Ms. Levy missing for almost four months, they see a pressing need for him to be honest about that relationship, despite his desire for privacy.

Steven Freitas, for one, thinks Condit is hiding something. Hands on hips, the ex-Air Force pilot keeps one eye on the toddler in the stroller in front of him and the other on his second child, who is buzzing around him in aimless arcs of pent-up energy. "He's still being very evasive," he says, standing in the grass next to a fruit stand. "He has not provided all the information he could. It's hard to be forgiven for something you haven't admitted responsibility for yet. Until he takes that step ... he's not going to be forgiven."

Such a sense of genuineness and contrition can do much to redeem a politician. Most notably, Nixon's "Checkers" speech in 1952 was widely accepted because of his apparent candor, as he called for an external audit of his finances and even invoked the family cocker spaniel.

Thirty-five years later, in the opposite spirit, presidential candidate Gary Hart challenged reporters to prove he was cheating on his wife. Journalists did, forcing him out of the 1988 race.

But that doesn't mean Americans will accept only monkish candidates in this age of revelation about politicians' private lives. Although public perception of Mr. Clinton plummeted during the impeachment saga, his job-approval ratings remained high, showing that Americans were willing to put up with personal turmoil, so long as it didn't interfere with his management of the economic boom.

"There's still a place for rogues in politics if they have some redeeming characteristics," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. "It depends on how much good they're doing, and how much hypocrisy."

Few argue with the assertion that Condit is a friend to the Central Valley in Congress, but for some, that is no longer enough. A block from the Farmers' Market, a cluster of protesters calls for Condit's resignation. With signs like "Too Little, Too Late," and a screeching megaphone, they chant slogans, and ask people to honk in support. A handful do.

Christine Lagow, browned by the sun, stands with her daughter. She can forgive Condit, she says, but he must set his family life straight first, and that means stepping down.

"Before you can ask for forgiveness, you not only have to be remorseful and regretful, but you also have to come full circle [and fix the situation]," she says. "The fact that he's skirting the questions shows he hasn't reached that point."

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