Poll Stars

The underplayed story of the year, meagerly reported and buried by columns of type (and reels of film) about White House sex, is the consistency of public-opinion polls giving Bill Clinton high marks for job performance. And in a story that seemed to merit bigger play, a nine-paragraph item a day after his impeachment by the House said an NBC poll showed 72 percent of Americans supporting the president, a rise of 4 percent.

The American voter and Republican members of the House seemed to exist in parallel universes throughout the year, in fact, and even the elections in November saw the Democrats gain five seats in the House, unheard-of for the incumbent party in off-year voting. That message, like the polls, didn't seem to register.

And this is because the political din in the House drowned out other sounds from the people at home. As zealots often do, the forces that run that chamber marched stridently in their campaign to destroy the Clinton presidency, a campaign that began not with sex but a land deal. Whether they have succeeded or not will be determined by a more reflective Senate in the coming months.

But the fallout from that single-minded crusade in the House -- ignoring signals from the electorate that it awaited action on more germane matters such as Social Security and health care -- led to warnings about the dangers to the political system itself that go beyond the impeachment of a president. There were warnings that the politics of personal destruction threaten democracy itself.

The tradition in national and state legislative bodies has been one of gentlemanly discourse, and differences in party affiliation and concepts of government have most often been presented with the decorum of parliamentary courtesy. Instead, the final months of this House session was preoccupied with charges and admissions of sexual misbehavior and marital infidelity of inquisitorial proportions, and this finally led to some somber warnings.

Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri declared to a standing ovation in the House: "We need to stop destroying imperfect people at the altar of an unattainable morality. Let all of us say no to resignation, no to impeachment, no to hatred, no to intolerance of each other, and no to vicious self-righteousness."

This turn from traditional decorum to hostility, many say, has led to widespread retirement of veterans of high reputation in Congress in the past six years. This is the result, they say, of the politics of reproach fostered by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich with his "Contract on America." As if the monster he created had become too strong, Gingrich himself announced his retirement after the November election. Even his successor-designate, Bob Livingston, was caught in the frenzy and announced that he, too, would retire.

Congressman Bill Clay noted that "the people who came here (in the Republican upheaval) were anti-government, anti-Congress and anti-congresspeople. They started these attacks on individuals and it became a very bitter, nasty situation."

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who had a lengthy tenure as a House member, thought things might have to change: "I think we are coming to a close of the Gingrich era, and this situation where we have so many personal attacks on the floor of the House."

Indeed, after both Gingrich and Livingston bowed out of the coming vote for a new House speaker, Republicans appear to have selected for speaker a relatively unknown Illinois congressman, Dennis Hastert, to save the party from what the Washington Post called its "self-inflicted wounds."

This loss of civility in government affairs was the underlying current in stories from Washington during 1998, largely implied as more sensational and salacious stories occupied the news media whose eternal search is the new headline. Those seemed easy to come by this year.

More difficult for a free press in a democratic society was to assess and interpret a factor that changed very little throughout the year yet seemed to be sending a message to a legislative body that in the end preferred to function as a grand jury. These were the polls showing the majority of the American people gave the president high marks for his job in guiding the nation's affairs.

Maybe, instead of Kenneth Starr and Bill Clinton, Time's Man of the Year award should have gone to one of the people who perfected the science of public-opinion polling, which proved itself as recently as this November.

1998:

 
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