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Only a Smoking Gun Turns Public Against Some Presidents

Will the long-lasting charges of unethical and even illegal conduct against President Clinton finally take hold and pose a threat to his stay in office?

That's a question I'm getting a lot these days - from hopeful Republicans and anxious Democrats. Here are my best answers:

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Ralph Reed, former spokesman for the Christian Coalition, has conservative and anti-Clinton credentials that couldn't be stronger. Yet he came to a Monitor breakfast the other day and stated flatly that Whitewater and all the other potential personal problems facing Clinton won't sink him. "How about the Paula Jones case?" I asked. Mr. Reed said Clinton would swim safely by that obstacle, too.

He observed that Richard Nixon "almost made it through Watergate." Had it not been for the disclosure of the Nixon tapes, he said, the president would have escaped the congressional impeachment move that led to his decision to leave office.

Reed said there were two other ingredients that were important in "getting" Nixon: John Dean's testimony and Sam Ervin's highly effective leadership in the Senate probe. But, Reed said, in efforts to discredit or even bring down Bill Clinton "there has been nothing like a Dean, or Ervin, or a tape."

Reed added that he had come to these conclusions after seeing polls and data indicating that the public wasn't reacting negatively to Clinton, despite the many charges that have been leveled against him.

From polls and from talking to reporters, I'm persuaded that Reed is right. Most people aren't concerned about what Clinton has done or may have done. They seem willing to overlook the charges of personal misconduct and to give the president a good mark for overall performance.

It reminds me of the early days of the Watergate scandal when President Nixon was running ahead of George McGovern in the last stages of the 1972 presidential race. A Monitor headline I've dug up reads: "McGovern Focuses Election Hopes on 'Nixon Scandal' Accusations."

At the same time, the Monitor ran a public opinion survey in which reporters in every area of the US were finding "no evidence" that the Watergate scandal had become an issue in the presidential campaign. A Minneapolis Star headline seemed to summarize the public's continuing attitude everywhere: "A Shrug, Not a Roar."

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There's a familiar ring to comments by journalists who were sounding people out about the emerging Nixon scandal: From a Nebraska newsman: "There has been such a scattergun of charges. It leaves people confused." From New York: "It's not catching on. People think it's just politics in Washington." From New Hampshire: "I don't think it's having any impact at all. People say it's just politics as usual."

So back then, the public continued to rally behind President Nixon. A strong majority of the voters felt he was doing an outstanding job, even if he or those close to him may have been involved in some wrongdoing. McGovern, as we know, was soundly trounced in the election that ensued.

I think the public would have stuck with Nixon had it not been for Ervin, Dean, and, particularly, the tapes. And the public will stick with Clinton - unless some "smoking gun" surfaces to bring the president down.

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