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American Contradictions

A public that deeply distrusts its government but gives key figures in government rave ratings? That doesn't sound right, but it's how recent polls appear to describe the collective American psyche.

A national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found a scant 20 percent of the US public feeling positive about the state of the nation. Only 34 percent trust the government.

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In contrast, we've all heard about President Clinton's sky-high performance ratings, hovering around 60 percent, saying he's doing a good job. And not just the president. Congress's approval rating is also in the same exalted range.

What's going on?

As the scholars of opinion research always counsel, look closely at the questions. With regard to the high job performance ratings for Mr. Clinton, look, specifically, at the breadth of questions being asked. Everett Ladd and Karlyn Bowman, writing in The Weekly Standard, point out that this can give a contrasting perspective on the public's view of the president.

Straight job performance questions draw positive responses, whether for Clinton or Congress, in keeping with the good economic times. Questions about character and ethics tell a different story. Last year, for instance, Gallup asked people to compare Clinton's ethical standards with those of other recent presidents. The only ex-chief executive who received lower ratings from those polled was Richard Nixon, who came in only slightly below the current White House occupant. Another question, posed last fall, indicated that 63 percent of Americans would not like their children to look up to Bill Clinton as a role model. And that was before the Lewinsky story and the Willey "60 Minutes" interview.

True, many Americans separate the president's skill in his job from moral and ethical concerns. But these other questions clearly show that the impression of a country wildly pleased with its leader is, at the least, oversimplified.

So what about the Pew findings of widespread distrust of government itself? What's important here is a sense of recent history. Scholars note that ever since the '60s, with their Vietnam agonies and Great Society initiatives, the public has been leery of the federal government and its ability to solve problems. Many Americans tend to see the huge, bureaucratic modern state as the problem.

This may or may not amount to concern about outright corruption in government. While more safeguards are needed (campaign finance reform, anyone?), defenses against corruption have never been stronger. Yet, the public sees the growth of special-interest politics, the flow of money to candidates, and is uneasy. At the same time, Americans want good, efficient services from government.

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We shouldn't forget that poll results must be read in context. That means paying close attention to exactly what questions are and are not asked.Otherwise we get an incomplete story of what's really going on in the deep, deep well of citizens' thoughts.

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