It was a moment made for the television cameras: President Clinton, in his State of the Union speech, pausing to acknowledge the contributions of his longsuffering wife. As he applauded-his eyes misty, his gold wedding band glinting in the spotlights-he mouthed three words very deliberately in her direction. I love you.
The first lady, waving to the crowd, didn't seem to return her husband's sentiments. But if overnight polls are any indication, the nation did.
Mr. Clinton's job approval ratings-already the highest of any second-term president in modern times-shot up still higher. More than 80 percent of Americans said they approved of his handling of the economy, a figure never matched by any other president. On the question of job approval, which tracks closely with economic performance, Mr. Clinton scored as high as 76 percent. And more than 8 in 10 people polled said they considered the Clinton administration successful.
We love you too, Americans seemed to be saying.
But do they really? The poll numbers, as reported by the major media, mask a deep ambivalence toward the superficially popular president. For instance, the same week he achieved his record numbers on handling the economy, he also logged the lowest "honesty" rating in history, with a paltry 24 percent of Americans saying they trust the man they put in the White House. Only 35 percent say the president shares their values, another record low. And barely 20 percent of respondents think Mr. Clinton provides good moral leadership.
Such numbers indicate the public's love-hate relationship with Mr. Clinton may be every bit as complex as the one between the president and his wife. They stand by him because he brings home the pork-er, bacon-but they neither like nor trust the man.
Still, only the most voracious news junkie would know Mr. Clinton is anything but wildly popular because the major media rarely report fully on the public's schizophrenic views. For instance, a search of the exhaustive Lexis-Nexis database shows that in the week following the State of the Union address, readers were 12 times more likely to find news reports of the president's record high poll numbers than his record lows.
Why such one-sided reporting? Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, says it's mainly a function of short attention spans. "We pollsters view ourselves like scientists," he explains. "The media have to do an abbreviated job of reporting on any scientific finding, including polling data. We are quite pleased with the way editors and reporters use our polling data, given time and space constraints."
But John Zogby, another prominent pollster, doesn't buy that analysis. "There's really no excuse" for the media's superficial reporting of poll results, he told WORLD. "It used to be said there was no time to explain the nuance of polls. Now that you have all these 24-hour news stations and almost no new news, there is all the time in the world to explain the nuances."
Instead of nuance, the president's poll numbers get the sound-bite treatment, so that one NBC analyst can take the high job approval ratings and report that Mr. Clinton is the "most popular" second-term president in 50 years. But job approval, Mr. Zogby points out, is quite different from popularity. "He's popular in the sense that the alternative is not acceptable," Mr. Zogby says. "But on any number of personal questions, this is not a popular president. People would not hire Bill Clinton as CEO, they would not want him dating their daughter, they do not see him as a role model for their kids."
The latest Zogby poll, however, gives the president an overwhelming 61 percent job approval rating-9 to 15 points lower than some other polls, but impressive nonetheless. Mr. Zogby, who is himself a Democrat, hurries to add that this doesn't mean as much as the White House might like the Senate to believe. "Job performance is a passive reading. If people feel the country's going in the right direction-there's no war, the economy's okay-the guy at the top gets the credit." Indeed, Mr. Newport of the Gallup poll acknowledges that since the time of Franklin Roosevelt, job approval ratings have usually mirrored the health of the economy rather than any specific actions on the part of the chief executive.
Despite the booming economy, just 40 percent of respondents in the latest Zogby poll said they were proud to have Mr. Clinton as president, compared to 42 percent who said they were ashamed. And the barest majority of Americans-51 percent-have an overall favorable view of their leader. "We've seen him in the high 60s on the favorable side, so there's definitely been damage done [by the impeachment hearings]," Mr. Zogby says.
For conservatives bewildered by the seeming popularity of a thoroughly discredited president, such numbers may prove reassuring. And Mr. Zogby sees one other little-noticed poll finding that should hearten those who fear the president may "get away with it."
"We are living in a period of reduced expectations," he says of the scandal-numbed American public. "That in many ways allows Bill Clinton to survive. But here's a president who dreams of a legacy of greatness-even his enemies admit he has the skills to be a great president-but the times aren't calling for greatness."
For a president who dreams of greatness, Mr. Clinton will be disappointed to learn that poll numbers-no matter how deceptively high-do little to move the more reasoned judgments of history.
House managers: no to
the polls, yes to duty
You could hear it in their voices: The House managers were tired, pessimistic, worn down by the sheer effort of battering themselves over and over against the arrogance and intransigence of the most powerful man in the world.
As closing arguments concluded on Saturday, Jan. 23, they had to realize fully that they were facing not just the president and the polls, but the Senate's own vaunted sense of prestige and prerogative. Again and again senators had emerged from the hearings to profess disdain for the whole affair and to wish out loud that they could rid themselves of the pesky House members who threatened to soil their marble halls.
So when Robert Byrd, guardian of the Senate's reputation and tradition, floated a proposal to dismiss the charges without calling witnesses-without even voting on the president's guilt or innocence-there was little wonder that the House managers could sense the curtain coming down.
In their closing arguments, the prosecutors nearly stopped prosecuting in a legal sense. Instead, they pleaded with the senators to do the right thing, to vote, for once, based on principle rather than pragmatism. Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), the lead prosecutor, closed the first phase of the trial not with legal precedents or soaring oratory but with a strangely introspective emotional appeal.
"Equal justice under the law is what moves me and animates me and consumes me," he said. "And I'm willing to lose my seat any day in the week rather than sell out on those issues. Despite all the polls and the hostile editorials, America is hungry for people who believe in something. You may disagree with us, but we believe in something."
And then, just as the sun seemed to be setting on the case against the president, a ray of light broke through. A few blocks away from the Senate proceedings, Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, responding to a motion brought by independent counsel Kenneth Starr and the House managers, ruled that Monica Lewinsky must submit to a meeting with the prosecutors who wanted to call her as a witness.
Suddenly, the president's reluctant accuser was once again center-stage, and all bets were off as to when the trial might end. The three managers who met with Ms. Lewinsky on Sunday called her an "impressive" witness who could do much to clear up any questions the senators might have about their case.
So as the Senate returned to work on Monday, Jan. 25, the House managers fought the Byrd proposal with renewed vigor. Acknowledging the urge to end the trial quickly, Rep. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) confronted the senators directly:
"Is that what you want to do in this case-just to save this man? To ignore the facts? To have a different legal standard? To make excuses that are bleeding this country dry? The effect of this case is hurting us more than we will ever, ever know. Don't dismiss this case," he admonished. "Find out who our president is. Come to the conclusion not that it was just bad behavior. It was illegal behavior."
Mr. Hyde then offered a deal to those senators who wished the House managers would just go away: Reject the easy way out, vote up or down on the president's guilt, "and when you do, however you vote, we'll all collect our papers, bow from the waist, thank you for your courtesy, and leave, and go gently into the night."
Instead, it was the Senate that went into the night, voting 58-42 for a closed debate that lasted past 10 p.m. The arm-twisting continued behind closed doors on Tuesday, with no compromise plan gaining the votes needed to pass. Some of the most crucial meetings took place in a small "hideaway office" in the Capitol, facing the Supreme Court. There, a three-man Senate "project team" met with House managers, urging them to whittle down their witness wish-list to a number small enough to sell to a trial-weary Senate.
Mr. Hyde didn't like it. He complained publicly that patrician senators were treating House managers as "the other body, kind of blue-collar people." But behind closed doors, with no staffers present, the senators continued to make their case for a short list that the Republican caucus could not refuse. Finally, the meetings bore fruit. On Tuesday the prosecutors announced they would call just three witnesses-"a pitiful three," in the words of Mr. Hyde, who had originally hoped for up to 15.
The strategy seemed to work. GOP senators, fearful of setting a precedent for witness-free impeachment trials in the future, immediately began announcing that three seemed reasonable. Moreover, by dropping such potential witnesses as Kathleen Willey and other alleged victims of Mr. Clinton's advances, the House managers signaled their intention to press the obstruction of justice charges rather than focus on the president's sexual escapades. To senators who had long insisted they would not be subjected to sleaze, the final witness list of Monica Lewinsky, Vernon Jordan, and Sidney Blumenthal left little room for objection.
When the roll-call vote was finally taken Wednesday afternoon, all 55 Republicans-joined by a lone Democrat, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin-voted against dismissing the charges and in favor of deposing three witnesses.
Few held out any real hope that three witnesses would change enough minds to garner the 67 votes needed to convict the president. But Republicans had a different end game in mind: Another Lott-appointed project team was already working behind the scenes to secure a dual vote at the conclusion of the witnesses' testimony. The first vote would be a "finding of fact" that the president did indeed perjure himself and obstruct justice. A second vote would then be taken on removing him from office.
Congressional sources told WORLD that the White House is dismayed by the plan, which is already attracting significant support across party lines. Some Democrats have said publicly that the president broke the law, so a "no" vote on the finding of fact would appear purely political. Besides, sources say, some old-school Democrats want something to stick to this president so that he cannot claim victory and hold a pep rally as he did after the House voted to impeach him.
Whatever the final outcome, Wednesday's vote was a sweet moment for the 13 House prosecutors who had defied the polls and stood on principle. Not surprisingly, the Gallup Organization released a new poll the morning of Jan. 28, this one showing that 54 percent of the public opposed calling witnesses in the trial.
As the House managers prepared to depose their "pitiful three" witnesses, it was just one more poll to be ignored in the search for justice.