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Voters' `New Tolerance' May Go Too Far

THE young woman in the televised panel discussion was speaking about Bill Clinton and the talk of out-of-marriage relationships that he has had to deal with throughout this campaign, starting with the primaries.

She said that Mr. Clinton's alleged involvement in such affairs was a private matter, one which he and Hillary Clinton should be allowed to handle by themselves. She added that this aspect of a politician's life had nothing to do with his "professional" life - how, for example, he would conduct himself as president.

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Further, she took the firm position that this subject was already losing its impact in presidential campaigns and would be lost forever after this election.

When the other young panelists didn't put up an argument, I turned off my TV. I try to keep an open mind on all subjects, but I thought that this matter deserved a spirited discussion, at the least.

As I have thought about it since, I've had to admit - reluctantly - that there is growing evidence that voters, particularly those young to middle-aged voters, are becoming increasingly tolerant of what they call individual lifestyle choices, and that tolerance includes infidelity and extends to presidential candidates.

The new young voters in coming years may make this "tolerant" view the prevailing one. To me, it is a disquieting thought. Substantial numbers of voters still reject such "new thinking." This was evident in the primaries when Clinton's campaign was nearly destroyed under the weight of the so-called "women stories" - together with the charges that he was a Vietnam War draft dodger.

Clinton battled back, asserting that he and his wife had dealt with what he called "these problems" and that they were behind them. This seemed a satisfactory answer to many voters.

He still is under heavy criticism for his Vietnam War-related conduct, but not so much for his avoidance of that widely unpopular conflict as for his current, varying explanations of how he had avoided the draft. In other words, his truthfulness is under question.

So even after one says "hurrah" that Clinton and his wife have buried his prior "problems," it occurs to me that a relevant observation, and perhaps even a judgment, can still be made on those admitted peccadillos: Extramarital relationships would seem to involve a man lying to his wife about what he was doing. I would think that even disciples of the "new tolerance" would have to concede that.

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And from that observation it is only a short distance to this one: that lying about one's draft conduct and lying to one's wife just might provide a clue to how Clinton might operate as a president. In Arkansas, many of his critics called the governor "Slick Willy" mainly for what they saw as his penchant to squirm around and be on all sides of issues. That's an aspect of dishonesty, too.

Right here I am sure some readers are protesting that I'm leaving out the "woman story" about George Bush. He denies it. And scores of reporters have dug deeply into that rumor to no avail.

It seems to be based on the assertion of someone (no longer living) who told someone else he saw Mr. Bush a number of years ago in a setting where he concluded that an extramarital relationship had occurred. There's nothing else. And no woman has ever come forward to make charges. It's preposterous to equate this rumor with Clinton's admitted "problems."

Yet if it were disclosed that Bush actually had been cheating on his wife, this deceit in the president's private life would have a bearing on how I would assess his assertions and his conduct in public life.

For example, that might cause me to take a new look at his statements of noninvolvement in Iran-contra, particularly after recent reports challenging the president's position. Bush, after all, has backed up his defense of having no knowledge of what had been going on with: "You have the word of the president."

To me, the "new tolerance" goes too far when it says that extramarital conduct is irrelevant to public life. This has to do with character. And to me, in selecting a president, the character issue is the most important of all - yes, even above the economy issue. It does, indeed, have to do with trust. And it relates directly to leadership.

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