President In Crisis: Politics turns on the youth of America

WHEN MTV, the music channel, launched its "Get Out the Vote" drive in 1992, it was attempting the almost impossible: stirring America's youth out of its political inertia. The campus activism of the early Sixties may have vanished for good, was the reasoning, but at least let's get students talking about politics again.

Well, guess what, finally that is more or less the only thing they are talking about. At the back of lecture theatres and in high school cafeterias across the land, Washington is topic number one. It is not the forthcoming mid-term elections that are stirring them, of course, but a certain matter known as Monicagate and the allegations and graphic sexual details contained in the report submitted by Kenneth Starr.

"Its so much like a soap opera," explained Scott Spaminata, a first-year communications student at New York University intercepted yesterday on his way to class. "It may have turned some people here onto politics and turned some away from politics. But everyone's talking and joking about this stuff."

That may be good news for Bill Clinton, who was enlisted by MTV in 1992 when he visited its studios to jam on the saxophone. Next Monday, the President is due to speak with Prime Minister Tony Blair at a conference at the NYU Law School about government and the global economy. Judging by interviews with Scott, nickname Spam, and others on campus yesterday, he should get a warm reception.

Republicans may have reason to wish apathy would return. Spam and his peers are just reaching the age when they will be able to vote for the first time and they not like what they are seeing on Capitol Hill. As they willingly voice their own thoughts on the scandal, one refrain quickly comes to the surface: Mr Clinton made mistakes, but they were private mistakes and not the stuff of resignation or impeachment.

Spam, 18, who has the lid of a can of Spam attached with rivets to the flap of his backpack and wears an elaborate choker of ivory and string around his neck, said the mood was clear. "Most people are siding with Clinton because they are not enjoying what Starr is doing. They think it's really unnecessary. Republicans are painting this really horrible, horrible picture of Clinton and it's kind of gratuitous."

Eva Shum, 20, a third-year business school student, admitted that she was shocked by the sexual charges in the Starr report and disappointed with the President. But she also conceded that, even with everything she had found out about him, she could help but still "like him a lot". "A lot of my friends, who are 20, 21 and 22, say, `Who cares who he has slept with?'."

If that seems like a liberal response, Ms Shum thought she knew why. For many of her contemporaries, what they are learning about Clinton and his relationship with Ms Lewinsky was "really only reality, something that happens everywhere". She added: "A lot of my friends are from divorced families, where fathers left their wives for other women and that sort of stuff. So this isn't shocking."

When they were not taking in the political shows on the television, after all, most of these students were probably watching the Jerry Springer Show, or the slightly less raunchy Oprah. They have been raised, in fact, in a confessional society where sordid tales of marital betrayal and kinky sex - "Transsexuals and their lovers" was the theme of Jerry Springer as I flicked it on this morning - have begun to seem almost like the norm. Were he not president, Clinton's escapades would not warrant five minutes on Springer.

Of course, it is this environment of depleted moral standards that has spurred the Republicans to espouse the family value rhetoric of the Christian right. In Clinton, many Republicans, especially the new batch of conservative Gingrichites who won seats in the House in 1994, saw a perfect foil to fight a new cultural war. Voters, they reasoned, wanted them to reset the voter's moral compass for them. They fought to tighten anti-abortion laws, clamp down on crime. Above all they began their campaign to dislodge pot-smoking, draft-dodging, woman-groping Slick Willy from office.

With the Starr report in hand and the Judiciary Committee considering impeachment on Capitol Hill, the door has been flung wide open for Republicans. But the danger is now entirely apparent: the risk of a voter backlash. If Republicans want to make Mr Clinton and his moral corruption the issue on the hustings, some in the electorate may see another issue: privacy and the invasion of it for partisan ends. The campus of New York University does not represent American voters at large. But there are sure echoes of what is being said here in the polling data now being harvested across the country and across all age groups. The President may have done wrong, students concede, but did his sins affect his stewardship of government and of the economy? Their answer overwhelmingly is that they did not.

"You know how they see what Clinton has done in Washington and how we see it here is altogether different," argued Jose Igarta, 19, a first- year student of communications at NYU. "To me, it seems that this Monica stuff is really just a great big joke."

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