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PUBLIC MORALITY WINS OVER PRIVATE MORALITY

Nothing's so mysterious about Monica Mania as the split between hysteria of the chattering classes and unruffled calm of most Americans. You'd think we lived on different planets. Or two cultures speaking different languages.

You hear the shoot-first, questions-later thunder of politicians who bellow that Bill Clinton should quit, be impeached or at least publicly flogged. They range from firebrands Sen. Dan Coates, R-Ind., and Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to presidential wannabees Dan Quayle, John Ashcroft and Lamar Alexander.

Their hostility doesn't match the frenzy of columnists condemning Clinton as "a sociopath, the slimiest, sickest president ever" (Charley Reese) to "moral pygmy" (Lars-Eric Nelson). Ex-sidekick George Stephanopoulos laments, "It may be impossible for people to ever trust him again." Editorial oracles from Orlando to Denver demand that Bill hang it up.

Talking heads (everybody's a "political consultant" or "ex-federal prosecutor") on MSNBC, CNN and CNBC screech that Clinton is dead meat.

Yet poll after poll shows ordinary folks tune out the doom-saying pundits and carnivorous pols. Not only does Clinton's approval rating float serenely in the mid-60s, but his popularity nudged upward after the speech experts decreed a bomb. Americans would even elect the Fibber in Chief again (Clinton 42 percent, Dole 34, Gallup poll).

How to explain this bizarre division between outraged elites and most Americans' shrugging placidity? Sure, blame Scandal Fatigue. Lord knows, everyone is tired of the yucky sexual gumbo. Another theory, expounded by Robert J. Samuelson, blames a backlash against Washington's "attack culture," blood lust by press, pols and prosecutors. (Witness deep disapproval of Starr, Lewinsky, Tripp and the media.)

But I suspect the Elites vs. Public split over the Monica scandal has a simpler underpinning. Basically, Americans draw a line between public and private morality in presidents -- and decide the first one heavily outweighs the second.

They're satisfied Clinton's a good, smart president with their needs in mind, which is why they hired him. It's dismaying, but irrelevant, that he's also a lousy husband, prevaricator and tomcat.

Polls underpin that double vision. Clinton's numbers plunge as people are asked if he's "honest and trustworthy." Yet 76 percent say he "can get things done" and "he cares about people like me."

Well, as Mr. Emerson told us, "Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." But I think they're right -- public morality is far more valuable in a president than a pure, alabaster private life.

Richard Nixon kept a senseless war going with bombs and invasion, wiretapped and burglarized enemies and abused the CIA and FBI in a coverup. Except for cussing and martini binges, he was Mr. Faithful -- if Monica leaped naked into his lap, Nixon would have called for his bodyguards.

We know in retrospect that Clinton's predecessors (and sometime role models) Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy had extramarital liaisons. Their legacy, though, is their public acts. The press, even if it knew, didn't reveal their dalliances. A Monica-type scandal was unthinkable luxury amid pressures of the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not excusing Clinton's self-indulgent, narcissistic, teen-age behavior. But in the impatient disgust with Monica Mayhem, you hear a yearning for an older, private era -- a president was an Olympian figure, and they weren't slimed in explicit detail if he bedded an upstairs maid.

Americans have overdosed on Monica, bristle at Starr's nitpicking prurience, rebel at an impeachment circus. They tell pollsters they don't want another Clinton attempt at apology. Enough!

Clinton, whose advisers bicker over his next move, should obey their mood: Shut up, stuff apologies, take your whacks, perform as president. Let Starr make his case. Impeachment based on sex and lies is a political long shot.

Sure, a president should control his hormonal urges. But what 75 percent of the people want from Clinton, as all presidents, is his coolest judgment dealing with the Russian crisis, terrorists, the tumbling stock market and Social Security.

There's a huge psychological gap between Washington elites with their obsessive blather about Clinton's doom and ho-hum serenity beyond the Beltway. Which shows common sense? I say bedroom boorishness counts less than public morality, temperament and performance.

Ah, well, maybe Monica Madness will be Washington's final sexual wallow. Sure, and Bonnie will be the last hurricane.

Philadelphia Daily News

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