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OK, So Maybe I Got It Wrong

MY column ''Clinton's Character: Is It Really Not an Issue?'' of two months ago has caused a spurt in my mail from readers. In that column I raised questions about a poll that showed that two-thirds of the public, including two-thirds of Republicans, believes that President Clinton's character problems have been overplayed by the press.

I also wrote that I wished I was still in the ''hard-charging phase of my life'' when I would check out that poll's findings by flying around the country and talking to a lot of people. I added that my instincts told me that people generally still react very strongly and very negatively to Mr. Clinton's extramarital problems.

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Well, readers from all geographical regions of the US have evidently decided to do my legwork for me. And they are telling me in forceful tones that they think the poll is right.

One reader makes this comment, which is a common thread in what these letter writers were saying: ''Are President Clinton's marital affairs of years ago a profound, positive, significant issue?''

Another expressed a common complaint: ''Some of us feel he has done a number of good things that are seldom mentioned and we are willing to forgive, or at least place in a larger context, a personal failing of some years ago.''

Some readers feel that personal peccadillos have nothing to do with morality. ''Let's talk about character,'' one Westerner writes. ''Newt Gingrich was once a member of the Sierra Club and a staunch environmentalist. But this is not 'politically correct' with the right wing, so he is as ready as all the Republicans to destroy 25 years of environmental progress to appease big-business interests. And to heck with education (except for vouchers to private and religious schools), and any assistance to the underprivileged. Is this 'character'?''

This writer, an all-out Clinton supporter, closes with the comment: ''I have decided that Bill Clinton is the Rodney Dangerfield of politics; no matter what he does, 'he gets no respect.' ''

A woman from the Southwest hits me between the eyes: ''Mr. Sperling, your bias is showing. President Clinton's extramarital problems are between him and his wife. They are none of mine [sic] or your business.''

She, like several other readers, also downgrades the possibility that Clinton is or will be hurt by the inquiry into the Whitewater affair: ''I'm inclined to believe it [Whitewater] is a local Republican scam to belittle the president. In two years they have not been able to pin anything on him yet.''

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One writer made this defense of Clinton that echoed the views of some of the others: ''Many of our most respected presidents had some character blemishes - [Franklin] Roosevelt, Kennedy, and even Eisenhower. But the press did not keep on magnifying their human weaknesses.''

One of the most thoughtful comments made in the letters was the following: ''Yes, I suspect that a large majority of Americans do not agree with extramarital affairs, whatever their moral persuasion. And I suspect that an equally large number do not like to see their public figures involved in such things. But I also suspect that many Americans have a substantial problem with the credibility of the press on this issue as it relates to Mr. Clinton. I do! Most of us are probably mature enough to realize that people make mistakes. Sometimes they even cease making them and try to make amends. This may be what has happened with Mr. and Mrs. Clinton. I don't know, do you? Which one of us is going to pick up the first stone? Not I.''

There may be many readers who thought I was right about the Clinton character issue still harming him. But the naysayers are the ones who, for the most part, have given me an earful.

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