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Grading America's 'Teflon' President

Every day the public sees President Clinton doing something: meeting with foreign dignitaries or American achievers, issuing an executive order, visiting or speaking to groups, flying to a disaster area, or presiding over some event. Even while on crutches, he cut back only slightly on the schedule of his trips abroad. Mr. Clinton has become the most visible of all presidents.

He is, indeed, a high-energy, workaholic chief executive. The busy, constantly moving fellow we see on television is the same person when he goes to his desk. As he moves into his second term, Clinton is haunted by the question: Can he turn his activity into accomplishments that will allow him to improve on the "C" grade that historians currently give his performance?

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The last Democratic president elected to a second term - Franklin D. Roosevelt - finally has his memorial in place and dedicated. And we are reminded that at this time in his long stay in the presidency Roosevelt was immersed in controversy over his remaking of our government and, indeed, our whole society.

He was very popular with most Americans, who were in dire economic circumstances and welcomed his help. But he was hated by millions of people who bitterly opposed the injection of government into their lives. His ranking among presidents was quite uncertain. Failure was a distinct possibility. But Roosevelt was able to put a reshaped government together and make it work. And then he went on later to become a remarkably effective manager of America's World War II effort. Indeed, from an uncertain future FDR was able to vault to what most historians today regard as greatness.

Obviously, Clinton has another big worry related to his future: Can he withstand the continued battering he is getting from those who accuse him of all kinds of inappropriate or even illegal activities? Will any of these allegations finally catch up with him?

I asked these questions to two Republican senators who were guests at Monitor breakfasts on successive days. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he thought he saw an elusive president who somehow would be able to escape the scandals that keep biting at his heels.

Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma seemed to think that the senatorial committee probing Clinton's fund-raising might find something that would seriously ensnare the president. But he, too, emphasized Clinton's amazing ability to elude this and other allegations: "Clinton, not Reagan, is really the teflon president," Senator Nickles said.

MY theory is that Clinton is probably home free, that he will finish his term no matter what comes out of the congressional hearings and the Kenneth Starr investigation. Oh, sure, if something really heinous is found in the president's prior actions - such as proof that he actually took a contribution from a foreign country in return for changing United States policy about that country or its leaders - then we are talking about impeachment proceedings.

But short of that - no. The probers might conclude that Clinton has been untruthful and that he has dragged his feet on producing information to the point of possibly obstructing justice. They might even produce evidence that Clinton, when governor, encouraged an illegal bank loan.

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But - even with this "worst case" scenario for Clinton's future - I think he still "skins" through. Why? Because the people - at least most of them - find it difficult not to like this bright, quick-witted, upbeat, and extremely personable president who clearly is working very hard at his job. This public appeal is reflected in polls that rate his performance.

That's the kind of climate in which presidents, even those under siege, will endure. A completely opposite kind of public attitude existed during the Nixon-Watergate period. It permitted - even welcomed - Nixon's ouster from the White House.

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