Around Baltimore, a deep sense of cynicism Impeachment debate sparks much bitterness on issue of leadership


Perhaps, many Marylanders say, it's proper for Congress to scrutinize the president. We should hold the nation's leaders to high moral standards, they say.

But for many, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal has created a tidal wave of bitterness. And in neighborhood diners and senior centers, beauty parlors and schools this week, Baltimore-area residents bemoaned the state of America's leadership and the political pessimism that young people are growing up with.

As Congress begins debate today on whether to impeach the man who once worshipped John F. Kennedy and Thomas Jefferson -- presidents whose once secret sexual proclivities have long been tabloid gossip -- many are asking:

Can it get any worse?

"These are the last days we're living in," said Stephanie Belser-Bey, 47, a dietician at Harbor Hospital who folded T-shirts and towels at the SpinCycle laundromat on Park Heights Avenue early this week.

"It's Pandora's box. Everything is out. I mean, whatever else could they do to us?" Opinion polls show most Americans don't (( want the president to be impeached. Around Baltimore, residents of every age, race and economic status express profound, weary cynicism while discussing the impeachment proceedings.

They say that, after independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and Congress complete their investigation of President Clinton, political leaders will have to expect an increased level of intrusion into their private lives. Many fear that will dissuade people from running for office -- and stymie the development of political leaders.

During a recent manicure session at Neal's: The Hair Studio, a Mount Vernon salon, several customers and employees discussed the burdens of future political candidates.

"You're really going to think about who these people are, not just, 'Oh, he sounds good and he looks good and he's got a heck of a wife' when you go behind the curtain [to vote]," said Jael Freedman, 28, a manicurist. "There's more behind it now for me and all Americans. I fell asleep -- this is a wake-up call."

Her client, Maia Belosevic, a 40ish Wyman Park resident, agreed that such sentiment might prevail -- but didn't believe elected leaders should be held to standards higher than their constituents.

"We ask for [public officials] to be on their jobs 24 hours a day, and we don't ask many other people to do that," she said. "They should lead governmentally, but the leaders should not be policed by us."

In the parlor room at Towson's 18-story Edenwald retirement community, self-proclaimed "rabid Democrat" Mel Roberts, 88, said the media should look into the lives of political figures, but added that the focus on sex was "trivial."

"They delved into a man's sexual life," he said. "He's not accused of rape. It's behavior typical of our presidents."

At University Baptist Church near the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the Rev. David Albert Farmer agreed, predicting a paralyzing effect on government leaders if the current level of scrutiny persists.

"It's as if we're going to have a whole new generation of politicians who have perfect lives," he said. "I think people are going to be more skeptical than ever that good people could be found for these positions."

Farmer, 44, remembers a time when this was hardly an issue. He was first eligible to vote when President Richard M. Nixon was seeking re-election, and he saw the Watergate scandal shatter the political hopefulness of many Americans.

"The difference is unbelievable," he said. "Now, any optimism we experience about a potential new leader has to do with personal things like, 'Will I have to pay less taxes.' Before, back in those days, there was a sense that a whole new mood could be created in the country."

Now, it is more typical that young Americans like Farmer's two teen-age sons -- who are "very interested and concerned about all this" -- seem the most cynical.

Many young adults struggle to believe that there once was a time when it was not unusual for a grade-schooler to want to be president, and when voting for the first time was an exciting right-of-passage.

Now, though there are notable exceptions, many youths say they are unfazed by Clinton's possible downfall. Most have never lived in a time of political optimism. They shrug, as if to say: So what if the highest leader in the land fooled around in the Oval Office with someone my age? What did you expect?

Outside Baltimore's Polytechnic Institute and Western High School, senior Chrystal Healy and junior Erin Reardon were more interested in discussing boys, college and other subjects of teen-age life than pondering Clinton's troubles.

"I don't pay any attention to anything," said Healy, 17. "I don't watch TV at all."

Freshmen David Ehrenberger, 14, and Jose Lopez, 15, waited for a bus one afternoon this week and admitted the political turmoil has shaken their faith in government.

Would they consider going into politics some day? "Not any more," Lopez said.

"Too complicated," Ehrenberger said.

For the parents of young children, the situation also feels grim.

At a support group for stay-at-home mothers in Elkridge this week, parents discussed their struggle to make moral sense of the issue for their youngsters. "My children want to know how the president could lie and get away with it," said Shareen Malik, 28, whose children are aged 4 and 5. "It's really embarrassing."

Despite such hopelessness, polls show that roughly 60 percent of Americans support Clinton on the impeachment issue. The Baltimore region supported him in both his presidential campaigns and many are contacting their representatives in Congress to fight his possible ouster.

But not masonry contractor George Moehrle, 44, who took a break from building a new school in Westminster this week to lunch on a plate of fried chicken and mashed potatoes at Baugher's Restaurant in Carroll County.

"From what I know of [my congressman, Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett], I really think it would be a waste of time" to contact him, Moehrle said. Bartlett supports impeachment.

Although Moehrle once admired Clinton, who he thinks "fundamentally cares about people," he's mad at the president -- not just for being immoral, but for being foolish enough to get involved with an intern even after Starr began investigating him.

He voted for Clinton twice, but wouldn't again.

This story was reported by Sun staff writers Dahn Thahn Dang, Anne Haddad, Kate Shatzkin, Erin Texeira and Jamal E. Watson and written by Texeira.

Pub Date: 12/18/98

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