Adulterers and liars - but the US still loves politicians

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EGREGIOUS AND criminal conduct; repeated lying; adultery, obstruction of justice and perjury. In great detail, these are the charges that have been laid against the President of the United States in the past few days. Is it any wonder that Americans have such a low view of their politicians?

Except, it seems, they don't. Most of the evidence shows that Americans have, over the last few years, recovered some of their trust in politics and government, and calling someone a politician is no longer the worst insult you can level.

There is no doubt that America still has it in for politics, at least if Hollywood's latest outpourings are anything to go by. Last year saw three blockbuster films - Primary Colors, Bulworth and Wag the Dog - which all painted politicians as venal, corrupt, depraved and obsessed by per- sonal ambition. This, in itself, was nothing new. After all, the classic Mr Smith Goes to Washington had a similar message: the innocent comes from outside the city to bring a breath of fresh air.

Bumper-sticker politics has had it in for big-time politics for decades, with stickers proclaiming that "All politicians are liars", or hoping that the Russians would nuke the nation's capital. And ask virtually any American in any bar in any city what they think of Democrats or Republicans, and the gist of the inevitable tirade is likely to be "a plague on both their houses".

Cynicism about politics and politicians grew throughout the late 1960s, and exploded as the Watergate saga broke. In the post-war years, there was great faith in government: it had, after all, ended the Depression, won the war and emerged stronger and more confident than ever. But the combination of Vietnam, inner-city riots and Watergate sent public trust plunging. It recovered during the 1980s under Ronald Reagan, but then sank again in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

As the cry of "throw out the rascals" went out across the country, there was a rise in insurgent politics: a preference for non-politicians, whether real non-politicians like the businessman Ross Perot, the independent candidate for the White House, or invented non-politicians like Ronald Reagan, who ran as an anti-Washington, anti-government figure from California. The libertarian right was on the upswing, deregulating, privatising, deunionising and ridding the nation of the threat of Big Government. Yet against all the expectations, public trust in politicians now seems to be rising again.

Most opinion polls show that not only is Bill Clinton's approval rating solid, but that in general politicians are reasonably well-regarded. Incredibly, a poll in November showed that 54 per cent of Americans trusted the President to tell the truth. Though the same polls show little respect for him as a person, he is widely thought to have done a good job, as are those around him.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 76 per cent of Americans hold either "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of confidence in the federal government to handle international problems, and 61 per cent have a high level of confidence in its ability to handle domestic ones.

Though these figures are about 10 per cent lower than they were pre-Watergate, they are significantly higher than in much of the intervening period. Impeachment made no difference. As Gallup said: "If any change has occurred in the past year-and-a-half, it has been in a positive direction." The last elections showed voters backing incumbents in record numbers. The nation seemed to be saying: keep the rascals in. Even the film Bulworth is about the humanisation of a politician, a man who comes to see what damage he and his colleagues have done.

There has even been something of a sense of the wheel coming full circle. The repudiation of "ideology" and partisanship around impeachment has been mainly directed at Republicans from the House of Representatives, led by Newt Gingrich until his resignation. Mr Gingrich led an anti-Washington, anti-government crusade, but ultimately had to face the fact that he was in power. He and his "revolutionaries" attracted a great deal of criticism; the Senate, entirely composed of professional politicians, is suddenly seen once again as the repository of experience and good sense, not a nest of privilege.

If this feelgood sense of politicians persists, it may have important implications for the next presidential election. Al Gore, the Vice-President who is expected to win the Democratic nomination for the presidency next year, was born in Washington, the son of a senator, and has worked there most of his adult life. The early policy positions he has taken are about revitalising city centres and conserving the US equivalent of the Green Belt - activist ideas that seem to resonate with suburban concerns across America. George W Bush, his most likely Republican opponent, is another insider, but he lacks political experience.

Everything, of course, hangs on the economy. The indices tracking confidence in government correlate closely with rising or falling personal incomes. The current boom has been longer than that of the 1980s, and nearly matches that of the 1960s; hence Bill Clinton gets the plaudits, whatever voters think of his character.

Americans credit their politicians with creating economic booms, and blame them for creating recessions, like most electorates. They are, by comparison with the British, more trusting of public figures in general, according to a study by Harris Poll and MORI, except for one category: newsreaders.

The British place implicit trust in the men and women who read the scripts, while Americans do not. If one group of people have really been lambasted over the Clinton saga, it is the media. Expect the next rash of films to be about the cynical, corrupt and depraved inhabitants of the nation's newsrooms.