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March 13, 1997

Why a Capital Uproar Is a Hinterland Sneeze

By R.W. APPLE JR.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- "It's one of the great puzzlements of the year," Robert Teeter said. "How can people be so indifferent to all this seamy stuff? I don't know, but they are. Scandal is on everyone's mind in Washington and on nobody's -- or almost nobody's -- in Michigan."

Teeter, a Republican campaign consultant of long experience, who managed President George Bush's unsuccessful campaign for re-election in 1992, has a theory about this seeming disconnection between Washington and the hinterland. He sees it as a manifestation of a larger phenomenon -- the decreasing importance of politics in the lives of the American people, and their waning interest in it.

"Every person has only so much attention to give," Teeter said, "and politics and government takes up only a fraction of what it did 25 years ago. Look at the declining television coverage. Look at the declining voting rate. Economics and economic news is what moves the country now, not politics."

Teeter was one of about a dozen Michiganders asked this week to reflect on the uproar in Washington over campaign fund-raising and its failure to find much of an echo in the rest of the country. President Clinton, whose administration and party stand at the center of the furor, has lost little of his popularity in recent weeks, according to public-opinion surveys.

Everyone interviewed agreed that the reaction here has been a shrug.

Why Michigan? It is one of those Middle Western states that has been pivotal in national elections for decades. It has a strong industrial and strong trade-union tradition, bountiful farms and sprawling suburbs, a troubled big city (Detroit) and healthier small ones. It has a a Republican governor, a Republican senator and a Democratic senator, a House delegation dominated by Democrats and a legislature where each party controls one house.

In short, it is a lot like the United States as a whole. Bill Clinton took it by 300,000 votes in 1992 and upped his margin to 500,000 in 1996.

One obvious reason why people here and elsewhere around the country have responded so little to the accusations of impropriety and excess in fund-raising is episodic news coverage. Local television news programs, the prime source of information for many people, carried little or nothing on the story early this week, for example. The Detroit Free Press buried the story on page 5 on Tuesday and at the bottom of page 1 on Wednesday.

"Maybe this is another case of us talking to us, as people say, instead of addressing their concerns," said Robert Giles, editor and publisher of The Detroit News, which has covered the fund-raising story fairly extensively. "But just because the story doesn't resonate doesn't mean we should start ignoring it. I worry that the public is lowering the bar of expectations so much that the next bunch that gets into the White House will think it can get away with even more."

Of course, the political professionals are paying attention. As ever, the controversy has spawned jokes. Alluding to the hundreds of overnight guests in the Clinton White House, many of them big contributors, Gov. John Engler of Michigan told a Republican dinner in suburban Macomb County the other night, "We're the party of Lincoln; they've now become the party of the Lincoln bedroom."

Douglas Fraser, the former president of the United Automobile Workers, said a few of his labor friends were concerned that the furor "will weaken the presidency and with it Clinton's ability to do things that they want him to do."

But even that kind of self interest, he suggested, tends to be overwhelmed by cynicism about politicians -- "why don't they get down to work?" -- and about journalists -- "why don't they stop carping at everyone?"

As for himself, Fraser said, he views the problems in the Clinton administration as merely an extreme form of what has gone on for years: "Politicians get panicky when they're behind," he said. "They cut corners, they promise you and put the squeeze on."

The one phrase used again and again by the old hands here is "people think that they all do it."

"It's a reflection of the success of the Republicans, in a way," said Prof. David Rohde, a political scientist at Michigan State University in East Lansing. "They've been trying to convince voters for years that government is the problem -- Reagan's phrase -- and that you can't trust politicians. Now people believe it, by and large. How can you expect people to be incensed when they view all this as simply more of the same?

"If we lived in a different world, where people considered politics a noble profession, and they thought most politicians were genuine public servants, then people would be outraged by scandals like the ones we're seeing and call for the heads of the bad guys. But not now, not in this world."

Lee Bollinger, the president of the University of Michigan, said that even on college campuses, "social idealism is dead or dormant, and a vast majority see the United States as king of the hill, at least for a while." This a comfortable time to live for most people, he said, and they view this "as a time to make money, pad their 401k's, not worry about the poor."

Bollinger added: "In my mind, the absence of a taste for scandal is directly linked to the lack of a social agenda. If you have no idealistic vision of your country, there is no reason to be disturbed by leaders who fall short of high ethical standards."

In that way, said Charles Eisendrath, a Michigan professor who used be a foreign correspondent, the United States may be starting to resemble France. Long accustomed to the peccadilloes of their own politicians, the French could not understand what all the fuss was in the Watergate affair, and thought Americans a little nutty to bring down Richard Nixon, a president they considered talented.

"They thought Watergate was business as usual," Eisendrath said. "Now we're getting world-weary like them."

The only thing likely to shake the country from its torpor, said Teeter, the campaign consultant, is something similar to the Ervin committee hearings at the time of the Watergate affair -- perhaps the hearings that are to be held this spring by Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn.

"Two or three weeks of televised hearings, witnesses who become personalities the country can identify with, maybe somebody taking the Fifth Amendment -- that could grab people's attention and change their view," Teeter said, "but I really can't think what else could do that."




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