Clinton's So Like Us We Don't Like Him


"The larger issue is that he's evasive and slick . . . philandering, pot-smoking, draft dodger."


"There has never been a time when the organized forces of the status quo haven't been able to drive down the popularity of a president who really fought for change."

These are the polar-opposite views that form the parameters of public opinion on a vexing question -- why Bill Clinton provokes such antipathy with so many Americans.

The memorable first description of Mr. Clinton came in 1992 from Mary Matalin, an aide to George Bush in that campaign. The second is Mr. Clinton's own self-assessment, provided on Oct. 7.

Perhaps most people would find themselves somewhere in the middle: Mr. Clinton isn't entirely blameless for his problems, we might say, but neither are the Republicans.

To be sure, Mr. Clinton has never held the affections of a majority of Americans. About 104 million adults voted in 1992. In the three-way race, Mr. Clinton tallied almost 45 million votes -- about 43 percent of the total. Thus, when his approval rating dips to 38 or 39 percent, that's only a 5 percentage point drop.

And the contention made by Mr. Clinton and his allies that the bashing of this president is unprecedented is not generally accepted by presidential historians.

Still, it appears that there is something about this president -- and his wife -- that huge numbers of Americans just cannot stand.

It's apparent in his low popularity in the polls, in the scorn expressed by drive-time radio hosts, in the crude jokes about Hillary Rodham Clinton. It's also evidenced by the way Republican candidates are linking their Democratic opponents to Clinton and in the way many Democrats have responded -- mainly by avoiding the president.

Interviews with dozens of presidential scholars, pollsters, other students of American culture and voters, reveal that there isn't one single answer why.

In recent weeks, Mr. Clinton's aim on foreign policy has been true. The economic recovery is in full throttle. In other words, Mr. Clinton is presiding over peace and prosperity, and by rights should be riding high. So what's wrong?

In interviews with experts and nonexperts, familiar subjects come up: the draft, Gennifer Flowers, smoking marijuana, Ms. Clinton's commodities trading, an administration that's more liberal than Mr. Clinton suggested during the campaign that it would be, the perceived weakness of the White House staff.

There is something else, too.

There is a pessimism in the land that has resulted in a disconnection between the American people and their institutions. This is not pop psychology; it's in the polling data, and it's in the interviews. If we don't have as much faith in our presidents as we used to, one reason is that we don't have as

much faith in ourselves as we used to, either.

Rise of the 'dittoheads'

The end of the Cold War meant the end of the nuclear threat that put everyone in the same boat. Unfettered from a common enemy and a common fear, Americans were free to do what they'd done before in peacetime -- to Balkanize into vastly different communities of interest.

In such an environment, Rush Limbaugh's fans, the "dittoheads," thrive. So does Louis Farrakan's Nation of Islam.

An army of conservative talk show hosts from Maine to San Diego vilifies Mr. Clinton each day. Surveys show their audience to be white, mostly male and politically conservative. Railing against liberalism, feminism and multiculturalism, the talk shows and their listeners focus on two people who epitomize everything they think is wrong with America -- Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"I've been doing talk radio since Lyndon Johnson was president, and there's no question in my mind that he's more unpopular than all the others, including Nixon, combined," says WBAL's Allan Prell.

Mr. Clinton's allies insist that if this is true, it's the fault of Mr. Prell's conservative brethren. Mr. Prell agrees that there's something to that but says there are other salient factors. Mr. Clinton's missteps involving women, marijuana, and Arkansas real estate deals have all come out while he's still in office.

He also points out that Mr. Clinton has come to power at a time when the public is fundamentally angry at government -- and that the president necessarily symbolizes that government.

"In all honesty, I don't have my finger on the pulse of the public at large," said conservative talk show host Tom Marr, who gives Mr. Clinton a hard time each day on WCBM. "I have my finger on the pulse of the dissatisfied. Satisfied people don't call radio stations. But there is a lot of dissatisfaction out there."

Mr. Marr asserts that Mr. Clinton exacerbated this anger by running as a "new kind of Democrat," that he proved almost immediately that he was just another liberal.

"I think the people see him as a phony," Mr. Marr said.

David N. Bossie, a conservative activist, drives 44 miles each way every day from Burtonsville, Md., to Fairfax, Va., to put out an anti-Clinton newsletter. He puts it this way:

"The bottom line with us is that we have an ideological divide between conservatives and the ultra-left policies of Bill and Hillary Clinton."

Conservatives come in two distinct camps: Economic conservatives essentially want lower taxes and less government. Cultural and religious conservatives rally around issues, such as their opposition to abortion and to gay rights.

This division is formidable, but Mr. Clinton has managed to unite the conservatives by attempting to open the military to gays, signing a series of executive orders expanding the right to abortion and submitting an economic plan that raised taxes, not just on the well-to-do but on everyone who buys gasoline.

Wanting to be like Ike

"When Ike left the White House in 1961, he had a 71 percent approval rating, said George Colburn, the Michigan-based historian who produced two documentaries on Dwight D. Eisenhower.

But the days of 71 percent approval ratings may be long gone for reasons that have less to do with Mr. Clinton than with the environment he finds himself in.

"Clinton is the victim of a hatred/cynicism that's larger than him," said William Miller, a professor of ethics and institutions at the University of Virginia.

Mr. Miller attributes this disaffection among the public, in large part, to "the steady drill of a superficializing instrument" -- namely, television. He also cites relentless negative "attack" ads that have become a staple in American political campaigns.

Wendy Rahn, a political scientist visiting at Duke University, has been studying this disconnection between the nation's economic numbers and Mr. Clinton's popularity. She believes that Americans no longer look at their financial situation and give the president a thumbs-up or thumbs-down depending on the economy. Instead, they are basing their view of him on their expectations for the future.

"What this suggests," said Samuel Popkin, professor at the University of California at San Diego, "is that we will not have a popular president again until people think we've bottomed out."

At the White House, Mr. Clinton and his aides wonder how America became a nation of such pessimists.

"It's almost as if the 'in' thing is to be against him," said Patrick Keegan, a 31-year-old forklift salesman from Richmond, Va., who was in Baltimore last week. "It's a shame, because everybody should be behind him. Business is booming."

That defining moment

George Bush volunteered in World War II at age 20, John F. Kennedy skippered the PT-109. Bill Clinton wrote letters to get out of the Army.

Successful presidents have moments in their careers when they have defined themselves for the nation. It doesn't have to be military service. Lyndon B. Johnson passed civil rights laws, Ronald Reagan took on the "evil empire." Jimmy Carter fought for human rights. As a senator, Richard Nixon rooted out "Communists" in the State Department; as president, he opened up "Red" China.

Mr. Clinton, a career politician who never served in the armed forces or the Peace Corps, who never held a job in the private sector, seems to lack any such defining moment.

Sometimes the contrast is obvious. This month, Mr. Clinton stood, on successive days, beside Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and South African President Nelson Mandela. In this decade, Mr. Yeltsin stood in front of a Red Army tank, putting his life on the line for democracy. Mr. Mandela spent 27 years in prison, outlasting apartheid.

"One of the reasons people dislike Clinton is the reason they detested Dan Quayle -- they don't view him as authentic," said Richard Vatz, professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson State University. "It's not just never serving in the Army. People don't think he's gone through the rites of passage a president is supposed to go through."

Ellis Woodward, who served in the Carter White House and is now a congressional aide, believes that Mr. Clinton serves as a symbol for an entire generation that isn't sure it has proved its worth.

"I think many of these baby boomers are having trouble having a guy our own age be president," he said. "I'm a smart guy, you're a smart guy, but we don't think we could be president. Our parents don't . . . think we could be president. What have we possibly done that makes us think we could be president?"

Since 1992, "character" has been analyzed, rationalized and dissected as an issue. And it keeps coming up when people talk about Bill Clinton.

In an impromptu focus group held by The Sun in a Fells Point restaurant and bar, a half-dozen Baltimore residents -- women and men -- insisted that Gennifer Flowers and his avoidance of the draft are no longer problems for Mr. Clinton.

"I'm an aging hippie myself, so that doesn't bother me," said 41-year-old Vicki McComas, a sushi-maker. "God knows, a lot of my generation would have trouble getting elected if their personal lives were picked over with a fine-toothed comb."

And yet, these peccadillos have symbolic resonance, even among those who remain favorably disposed toward Mr. Clinton -- Maryland is chock full of them -- and who believe that Mr. Clinton's problems in Washington are caused primarily by quarrelsome Republicans.

Liston George, a 41-year-old Baltimore waiter, worries that Mr. Clinton compromises too much and is "too conscious of polls . . . and people telling him what to do."

Cockeysville's Jim Voris, a 41-year-old software developer who detests Mr. Clinton, put it this way: "It's like George Bush said, 'Character does count.' This guy is obviously on the slippery side. He doesn't seem to have a center."

Too many hats?

John F. Kennedy, who Mr. Clinton reveres, would never wear the baseball caps, war bonnets or hard hats that well-wishers are always trying to put on a president's head. He thought they looked silly.

Bill Clinton will wear any cap, any T-shirt. He'll use any idiom and talk about anything.

In the process, historian William Miller believes, Mr. Clinton has surrendered some of the mystery and majesty of the office.

When a presidential candidate goes on "Arsenio" wearing shades and blowing the sax, he shows young voters and blacks that politics can be fun and that all middle-aged white guys aren't stiffs.

But when, as president, Mr. Clinton answers questions on MTV about the type of underwear he prefers and when he makes insinuations about bedding women in the back of his pickup, that's different.

L He has made himself one of us. He has made himself ordinary.

Carl M. Cannon is a reporter in the Washington Bureau of The Baltimore Sun.

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