The loyalty mystery


WASHINGTON -- I love a mystery: What inspires the phenomenal loyalty to President Clinton?

There he stands in the dock, impeached as a perjurer, certain of more censure, roundly denounced by even political allies for weaknesses that dishonored his office.

Yet not one of the aides who call themselves betrayed has turned on him. Not one of his appointees has resigned in disgust. Not one close associate or lawyer still living has crumbled, though under intense pressure of the threat of jail, to testify against him.

Through all the revelations of deceit, his wife steadfastly grasps his hand. His political party marches lock step down the line to protect him. And the public, in opinion polls and at the polling booth, stands by him more staunchly with each step toward historic shame.

That's loyalty across the board, the likes of which this nation has never seen before. What's behind it?

Approval rating

Because his personal approval rating is far below his job approval rating, most of us have assumed that his support is strictly the product of rampant prosperity. It seems as if the majority is saying, we're all right, Jack, and don't rock the boat.

But I've begun to wonder. Good times cannot explain it all.

What, for example, undergirds the grim loyalty of Susan McDougal or makes Web Hubbell "just have to roll over again"? Without a powerful psychological tie, they would have cracked years ago.

What beyond stubbornness drives Janet Reno, losing professional respect and her own health, to cling to office longer than any attorney general this century? What beyond a sense of duty induces William Cohen, who jumped party ship to impeach Richard Nixon, to remain at the helm of the Pentagon and bear the scorn of critics who see his Iraqi missile-lobbing as Clinton impeachment-lobbying?

That's only the beginning of the loyalty mystery. Hillary Clinton told an interviewer a year ago that if her husband were proved to be lying, that would be "a serious offense." After evidence forced him to admit it, she found the offense less serious. Blind love? Shared political goals? Joint vast-conspiracy hatred? Or old-fashioned loyalty?

Now to the enigma within. Two out of three Americans -- a far higher percentage than those who voted for him -- are willing to abide with him even if the charges are true. Why?

Some don't want to deal with public unpleasantness. Others don't want snoops prying into their own private lives. Others retain a reverence for the presidency, no matter what the leader or sibling-figure does. Add those to the hard-core liberals and minorities who see their man as a fire wall against spreading lava from the right.

But there must be something else -- in some undiscovered region from which no media biggie reports -- to explain the incredible attachment of this great nation to this ungreat man.

Could it be the Kulturkampf with its weapons of messy personal destruction? In this social conflict, moralizing geezers say to boomers, "You see where all your '60s pot and protest and permissiveness have brought us?" and graying boomers reply, "Get a life and swing a little, Gramps." Meanwhile, the Self-Absorbed Generation, living in surplus, pages itself on cell phones and is oblivious to such squabbling among its buying-powerless elders.

Only partly. Could it also be partly that those victorious a generation ago in overturning an election are infuriated by any comparison of cover-ups? To prevent a "payback time" that would de-demonize Nixon, the aging Good Guys of yesteryear are impelled to loyally minimize Mr. Clinton's crimes.

The solution to the Clinton loyalty mystery is greater than the sum of these partlys. Peeling this onion down to its tears, you discover a widespread affection for this likable lame-duck liar as fervent as a minority's distaste for him. His many weaknesses become his strength.

Loyalty, we discover, need not be a two-way street. Mr. Clinton is a loyalty blotter; he sops it up. He is impervious to calumny because he is confident of that loyalty, which multiplies it. Even as reckoning looms, nothing sticks to him except the majority.

William Safire is a New York Times columnist.

Pub Date: 1/13/99

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