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Monday, August 24, 1998 Published at 07:53 GMT 08:53 UK


A dog being wagged?

American's pass judgement on their president

Americans have many different attitudes to morality, sex and even law depending on whether they're living in, for instance, Salt Lake City or San Francisco. According to our Washington correspondent, Bridget Kendall, in the US public morality and public opinion are more complex than they sometimes appear:

If ever there was a week in America when reading public opinion seemed to matter, it was this one. And by far the easiest part is the reaction to the airstrikes. Absolutely predictably, most Americans think President Clinton did exactly the right thing. What else do you expect from such a patriotic people?

Any of you who've driven across America will know exactly what I mean - how many homes have you passed with a massive American flag in the front garden?

"Why do you need a flag?" I remember I asked one friend in the heart of the mid West, Iowa I think it was, "It's not as if you have to stick up for your country around here." I said, "Almost everyone in Iowa is American."

"I dunno," he answered, "I just kinda like it."

Laughing stock

So of course Americans rallied round their president when he went on television and told them he'd taken resolute action to launch a war on terrorism. They'd been afraid his sexual troubles were making America a laughing stock.

What better way to reassure them they needn't worry about the nation's image internationally?

"Americans will not stand for this type of terrorist activity" approved one senator on TV on Thursday night. "The United States has to lead" agreed another.

I remember very well the moment a couple of years ago when it dawned on me - Bill Clinton's easiest route to boosting his popularity, which at the time was flagging badly, was to assert himself in foreign policy.

I'd gone to a gambling establishment in Louisville, Kentucky to sample opinion.

Professional punters

A palatial place - a succession of low-lit auditoriums lined in green baize to absorb the sound. The professional punters sat all day in tiered rows, peering up intently at giant screens, sipping bourbon and placing their bets electronically.

Former jockeys, by the look of many of then, wizened small men with conservative views and not much time for Bill or Hillary. But I remember several made a point of saying they liked the way the president was taking a tough line on Bosnia. "We're the leader of the free world" said one, "we've got to show other nations." You hear that a lot in America.

And that's part of the reason, I think, even before his announcement about airstrikes, that so many people still insisted Mr Clinton was doing a good job as president.

Feeling good about their country and their leader is a very important part of feeling good about themselves - even if they don't always live up to it.

Clean living

This is, after all, a country where most of the population believe in God and go to church on Sunday, but which still has one of the world's highest divorce rates. But strong moral values don't necessarily go hand-in-hand with good clean living.

One small town in South Carolina comes to mind. It was the scene of a tragic murder - a young mother who'd driven her two small boys to their death in a lake in what seemed to be a displaced suicide.

At first glance the town seemed very religious. It had over 60 churches, her stepfather was the head of the local Christian Coalition. But the longer I stayed there, the more I became aware of a seething world of lax morals beneath the surface.

There was the constant reference people made to the young woman's many lovers. There was the shocking confession from her stepfather that came out in court - that for all his Christianity - he'd sexually abused her. And the final straw was the bed and breakfast where I was staying - a welcoming comfortable couple who nightly brought us sherbet dessert as we sat watching the fireflies on the veranda.

But when the next day their name came up in conversation with a local lawyer, he exploded - "That damned man stole my wife!" he said of the husband. "He ran off with her and destroyed my marriage!"

Reverence for the flag and the president, I've decided, is like regular churchgoing. That's what you do on Sunday, and then during the week you switch on the TV and indulge in sex and mindless violence and all the other vices on the soaps and the daytime talk shows.

Sleazy lot

No wonder Americans aren't surprised by the sins of their president. Bill Clinton's problem isn't that he succumbed to sexual temptation: that just makes him human. And anyway, say ordinary Americans, we all know politicians in Washington are a sleazy lot that can't be trusted.

No, Bill Clinton's problem is that when it came to confessing on TV on Monday night - he wasn't repentant enough.

So, though I don't go for the "wag the dog" thesis, I do think it's highly convenient. And it certainly means in a week when the main verdict on Bill Clinton was "disappointed" or even "betrayed", his damage limitation has been breathtaking.

But that doesn't mean he's out of trouble yet.

As you'd expect from a people who are so cynical about their politicians, and who've just been told by their president he deliberately misled them for about seven months - one in three Americans wonder if they can believe Mr Clinton when he tells them the bombing he ordered and the fact Monica Lewinsky was testifying that day were not connected. And that ought to worry him.

It's true Bill Clinton has got the highest approval ratings for a long time for a president at this point in his second term. But don't forget, in his first term, he had some of the lowest ever ratings.

Public opinion in America is fickle. Let the jitters on Wall Street turn into freefall, and all those small investors - nearly 50% of the population - will no longer be feeling so good about the American economy.

So wait a week - wait a month - and watch what happens when Mr Starr's report goes to Congress. No-one thinks, after seven intensive months and eighty witnesses, this investigation into the president can be overturned by the impact of a few dozen cruise missiles.



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