Few presidents ever faced as many distinct ethical allegations from their opponents and the press as Bill Clinton did during his two terms. Those charges created persistently high doubts about his honesty and morality. But none of them produced a fatal wound.
Many factors allowed Clinton to survive questions about his character: satisfaction with overall peace and prosperity, respect for his skill and effectiveness, and distaste for critics who repeatedly seemed to overreach. But his most important shield may have been the belief that he understood, and genuinely hoped to ameliorate, the problems of ordinary Americans. For Hillary Clinton, it’s probably more important to match his strength on that front than to improve on the weak perceptions of his character. And that’s something she has not yet done.
The exit poll conducted the day Bill Clinton won reelection in 1996 captured the consistently conflicted American assessment of him, and offers clues about how the country may weigh its similarly ambivalent feelings about his wife. Clinton dispatched Republican nominee Bob Dole that day by a solid 49-41 margin. Yet in the survey, 60 percent of voters said they did not believe Clinton had told the truth about the controversial “Whitewater” investment in Arkansas and just 41 percent said they considered him honest and trustworthy (far less than the 54 percent who did not.)