Clinton building 'air of goodwill'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- The polling numbers seem impervious to change -- ask people if they like President Clinton and they deliver a resounding "no," ask them if he's done a good job and they're quick to give their approval.

But lately, pollsters are detecting a subtle but intriguing shift in the attitudes of Americans toward their scandal-scarred leader: the venom is draining, the emphasis is changing from the personal to the professional, and an impeached, marginalized president once considered the lamest of lame ducks might be feeling the first spark of a revival.

From Middle Eastern peace talks to a Moscow summit to his hard-fought victory on major China trade legislation, Clinton is back on the stage. Vice President Al Gore has set aside past efforts to distance himself from his boss and purposely tied himself to the Clinton legacy on a "prosperity and progress tour."

Even Bill Maher, the biting political comedian from the show "Politically Incorrect," cut Clinton some unexpected slack at a Democratic fund-raiser the night of June 24. "I know politics is rough for everybody who's in it, but this man has taken more crap and been more gracious about it than anybody who has nuclear weapons should ever be asked to."

And Americans are responding to Clinton's resilience.

As one Democratic pollster put it, the American people are starting to see Clinton as "the crazy uncle in the attic," viewed with an undeniable touch of revulsion, but also with affection and a recognition of the good that many people feel he has accomplished.

"There is an air of goodwill," said presidential scholar Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. "Newt Gingrich is gone. The fights in Congress are not very serious. [Clinton's] not our hair shirt anymore."

Like its earlier variant, "Clinton Fatigue," this new phenomenon -- call it "Clinton Nostalgia" or just "Contempt Fatigue" -- is hotly debated. Some say it does not exist. The people who have always liked Clinton continue to do so. Those who despise him have lost none of their bile. A bipartisan poll released June 22 by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake and Republican pollster Ed Goeas found that 70 percent of Republican voters disapproved of Clinton personally and professionally.

"I haven't noticed any softening," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. "They just find him a disgusting human being, not to put too fine a point on it."

But others insist unwavering poll numbers hide an important shift of emphasis, especially among moderate swing voters. Where once Clinton's personal proclivities predominated in public opinion, now it's the professional side of the equation.

"There has been a change over the last six to nine months," said Democratic pollster Al Quinlan, who has studied attitudes toward Clinton in swing-voter focus groups. "And what we're seeing, and it's subtle, is more recognition and a higher priority on performance in office."

"There are no longer the groans," said a Gore adviser who has taken the pulse of focus groups on Clinton for the vice president's campaign. "People will immediately find a way to say something better about him."

In April, a Harris Poll found that if Clinton were allowed to run for a third term, 43 percent of all voters would prefer him as the Democratic nominee, compared with the 39 percent who wanted Gore on the ballot.

Among Democrats, the allegiance was striking. About 60 percent favored Clinton while 34 percent said they wanted Gore as their nominee. A Time/CNN poll in March found that in a hypothetical matchup between Clinton and Bush, the two were dead even, though more recently Bush held a 5-point lead in a Newsweek survey.

Inside the Beltway, the shift has been less subtle. This spring, Washington's chattering classes began debating the term "Clinton Nostalgia," and that debate took off after the president's April 29 bravura performance at the annual White House correspondents' dinner.

Clinton wowed the black-tie gathering of 2,000 journalists, pundits and celebrities with a masterful comedic performance, capped by a self-deprecating video of lonely Bill, wandering through empty White House corridors, watching the laundry, mowing the lawn and washing the limousine.

It was a welcome tonic for many of the journalists who have grown weary of covering the often leaden Vice President Gore and the often tongue-tied Texas Gov. George W. Bush, said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential scholar at the University of New Orleans' Eisenhower Center.

"Some of those skills Bill Clinton has as a politician right now -- that sense of oratory, the ability to move people with rhetoric, his gregariousness -- those qualities are lacking in Gore and Bush," Brinkley said. "So Clinton is looking pretty good."

On May 24, the Democratic National Committee shattered all fund-raising records with a gala "National Tribute" to Clinton that attracted 13,645 guests to a Washington sports arena and raked in $26.5 million.

Much of the nostalgia is being stoked by Clinton, who speaks wistfully of his days in the White House, notes endlessly that he is not seeking elective office for the first time since 1974, and complains about constitutional prohibitions against a third term. Clinton has been more available to the media and more open, especially since independent counsel Kenneth Starr left the stage and congressional inquiries lost their punch.

"What Clinton is so brilliant at doing is making us feel his pain," presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said on NBC's "Meet The Press."

"Not only does he feel our pain, but he's the one who is evoking this sense of nostalgia," she said, adding: "Everywhere he goes, he talks about how sad he feels and how he loves the presidency. I think we can all identify with somebody leaving something that was wonderful. And I think we like the fact that he liked the presidency."

Even the rabid Clinton-haters who have stoked the talk airwaves with contempt and conspiracy theories have lost their zeal, said Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of Talkers magazine, which monitors talk radio. For the radio hosts, Clinton is old news. For the listeners, the Clintonian apocalypse was a no-show.

"The world did not come to an end during the Clinton administration," Harrison said. "They can't say, 'Mark my words, if this man remains in office for two more years, doom is coming.' Clinton is the Y2K of pending political disasters," meaning lots of angst, no payoff.

Ayres, the Republican pollster, agreed to a point, saying that anti-Clinton passions have not so much dissipated as shifted to Gore.

There might also be a growing appreciation for Clinton's tenacious survival skills, said Louis Menand, an English professor and social commentator at City University of New York's graduate school. Though some cling to the notion that Clinton is still Slick Willie, the president has been caught at something so many times that he appears to be "about the unslickest guy around," Menand said. Yet, he added, Clinton keeps popping back up with a smile on his face.

Brinkley recalled Clinton's initial appeal as the poor kid born William Blythe in Hot Springs, Ark.

"At heart, he's not Bill Clinton," Brinkley said. "He's Bill Blythe, from a hardscrabble background, and he's beaten the rap. Working people see him, and there's a feeling of, 'Go, Bill, Go.'"

During President George Bush's campaign of 1988, French-born medical anthropologist Clotaire Rapaille was hired to convene focus groups that would hash out their conception of an ideal president. Their conclusion: A crucial element of the presidency is "cheap entertainment."

In an era when the political realm's importance has diminished and celebrities and sports stars are remunerated in million-dollar denominations, there is more than a little truth to that observation, Menand said. And Clinton played the part to the hilt.

"Part of this Clinton nostalgia or whatever it is," Menand said, "may be the realization that over the next four years, we'll be dealing with somebody that's not nearly as entertaining."

Jonathan Weisman is The Sun's White House reporter.

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