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Honesty is neither expected nor required

In 1975, less than six months after President Nixon resigned from office, respondents in a poll were asked to rate eight character traits in terms of their importance to becoming a good president. After two years of astonishing revelations of deception, dishonesty and alleged criminal behavior during the Watergate scandal, this poll could be assumed to have measured the desire for honesty at a high-water mark. Yet out of the eight character traits, honesty placed seventh.

This should be remembered, because many people in the GOP seem confused by recent poll findings that show a majority of Americans have severe questions about the honesty of President Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, yet, by a wide margin, they seem intent on retaining them in office.

The Republicans like to think there is inconsistency in this, that the stupid voters don't understand it would be an act of moral turpitude to re-elect a president they believe to be dishonest and, therefore, if the electorate can be reminded often enough of its conclusions about the Clintons' honesty, the president will be beaten. This is nonsense.

Now, Americans do not suffer from a lack of regard for integrity; we just don't find much of it in our daily lives. And perhaps the last place we expect to find it is in politics.

Because Americans tend to believe that all politicians are dishonest, it is not illogical for voters to believe Clinton is dishonest _ but still the better choice. The devil you know is always better than the devil you do not know.

Surely, Nixon's reputation for dishonesty was second to none. Well before Watergate, the joke about Nixon was that, had he been captain of the Titanic, he would have told passengers the ship was merely stopping for ice. Polls taken during his re-election campaign in 1972 revealed voters were aware of his lack of candor _ more than 40 percent of the electorate choose "some of the time" when asked their opinion of how often Nixon told the truth. Yet, he carried every state except Massachusetts, running against truthful George S. McGovern.

In 1976, the country narrowly elected Jimmy Carter, a man who promised he would never lie to us. Carter seemed to feel that, after Watergate, the country would appreciate a heavy dose of self-righteousness.

Never admitting any error in judgment, always clinging to high moral ground, Carter became a detested man.

There's a touch of Carter in the Clintons, and it accounts for why we don't like them. They, too, are hypocrites. Having denounced yuppie greed, the Clintons were discovered trying to make a killing in a shady land deal and indulging in questionable commodities trading. Having strongly endorsed the Wisconsin welfare reforms, Clinton persists in denying exemptions that would allow them to go forward. Having promised a new direction for the country in 1992, we see instead a man and his wife motivated solely by a desire to hang on to the presidency at all costs.

When Clinton said, in the 1992 campaign, that he had smoked marijuana but didn't inhale, he told us all we needed to know about his honesty. Most people think he lied, but I believe him. He seems capable of the greater deception of sitting among people who thought him their friend, seeming to endorse their actions and then failing to inhale, lest he someday be accused of smoking pot. At any rate, whatever one believes, Clinton told us he was a dishonest person.

Elections come down to choices and, so far, the choice in 1996 is between an amiable hypocrite, whose shortcomings are known, and a sullen man whose peculiarities can only be imagined. The Clintons may be dishonest, but nobody is being deceived. But Bob Dole asks us to believe that his own inadequacies as a candidate are the result of an unfriendly media and that by simply inviting him to speak at their convention, the NAACP can be charged with a conspiracy to make him look bad. Again, to voters long accustomed to imperfect choices, the devil you know is better than the devil you do not.

When I first went to work for Nixon, early in 1966, I accompanied him to a news conference at which I heard him give a series of answers that I knew did not embody his true sentiments. Bothered, I suppose, by the prospect that my youthful idealism might be offended, he sought me out immediately after. "You've got to understand something, John," he said. "I can say things that, if other people said them, would be lies, but when I say them, nobody believes them anyway."

I have often reflected on this odd statement, but the nub of wisdom contained in it is what protects the Clintons from Republican assaults on their honesty.

John P. Sears, a political analyst, was a political adviser to Richard M. Nixon and served as presidential campaign manager for Ronald Reagan.

Special to the Los Angeles Times