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Don't count character out

Last winter, when the Monica Lewinsky story was only a few weeks old and official Washington was stunned to discover that President Clinton's job approval ratings had risen, not collapsed, I offered the theory that perhaps American voters were adopting "the French solution." Like our Gallic allies, we seemed to be saying, "The sexual morals of our leaders are their own business _ not ours."

Several other columnists dissented, as did most of my mail. But last week, June Kronholz of the Wall Street Journal became the latest to report, on the basis of polling and voter interviews, that "Americans have decided to look to political leaders to perform a job, rather than to serve as role models." One bit of evidence was a survey showing only 30 percent viewed Clinton's high job approval scores as a sign "Americans have become more cynical and have low expectations about the moral standards they expect from their political leaders," while 65 percent said "Americans have become more realistic and accept that political leaders should be judged on their performance in office rather than on their personal life."

Mike McKeon, an independent pollster, told me even before the Lewinsky story broke that voters now choose a president or a governor "the way they'd hire a CEO _ they want someone to run the place, avoid problems and deliver results."

Now that character is being so widely discounted, I want to offer a caution about my earlier theory. The presidency as an institution and Clinton as a politician are both at risk if the role model aspect of the office is ignored.

It's easy to do just that if you look at current polls. A Washington Post-ABC News survey early this month gave Clinton a 65 percent positive job approval rating. But 61 percent said he lacks high personal moral and ethical standards, 58 percent said he was not honest and trustworthy, and 50 percent said they think he broke the law by lying under oath or encouraging others to lie.

It looks like a complete disconnect. But David Brody of Stanford, a student of public opinion, argues that a president's job approval rating is a proxy for the question, "How do you think things are going in the country?"

Charles O. Jones, the University of Wisconsin author of presidential studies, notes: "It's a question of priorities. When the gulf war was the top priority, George Bush had a 91 percent approval rating. But when the economy became the priority, he went into the dumpster. Today, the economy is the priority, and people don't want bad news in good times. They're quite willing to postpone the question about Clinton's character until they know for sure what he has done. But if you look at what they think he's done, you have to conclude that when his actions become the priority, he may face a real problem."

Except for the Oklahoma City bombing, when Clinton performed superbly, his has been what Jones calls "a non-crisis presidency. If we had another crisis, economic or social or military, the symbolic value of the presidency and the expectation of moral leadership would still be there."

History suggests that few presidents can expect to avoid such a test, and when it comes, it is only the legitimacy of the office and the stockpile of personal trust they have accumulated that can sustain them. Lyndon Johnson's job approval score fell from 78 percent when he succeeded John Kennedy to 41 percent in early 1968 and, in the climate of distrust bred by Vietnam, he stepped aside. Richard Nixon stayed well above 50 percent until the post-Watergate spring of 1973, but was in the low 20s when his lies caught up to him and forced him to resign.

On the other hand, Jimmy Carter's job approval rating was nearly that low during the oil embargo and high inflation of 1979, yet his character ratings remained high enough for him to give Ronald Reagan a real battle in the 1980 election. Reagan's job approval fell as low as 35 percent during the recession of 1982-83, but the American people never doubted his character and he won a smashing re-election victory in 1984.

Fred Greenstein of Princeton, another presidential scholar, says, "It's more complicated now. The standards for the president aren't the same. It's not quite like France, and it's not the Scarlet Letter era either. But character is still the anchor for attachment to the presidency."

It's at least premature _ and very possibly mistaken _ to toss it out of the picture.

Washington Post Writers Group