of a country that has ceased to care

US ELECTIONS; Cynicism wins by a huge consensus
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The Independent Online
The conventional view of the US election is that the Artful Dodger, in Gore Vidal's description of Bill Clinton, defeated the guileless codger. That the slick, unprincipled politics of the president were always going to prove too much for good old plain-spoken Bob Dole.

Hence the question, thundered from Republican pulpits: "Whatever became of honour, decency, integrity in American national life?"

The answer is ready at hand. If you look closely at the thousands upon thousands of polls and political focus group sessions that have been conducted the length and breadth of America in the last year, you will discover that the runaway winner of the 1996 election was never going to be Mr Clinton or Mr Dole, Democrats or Republicans. The winner, by a huge bipartisan consensus, was cynicism, a perception that American politics are dirty, that politicians are crooks and liars.

Mr Dole, when he finally got around to defining his electoral message, sold himself as a man of character, a man of his word - the president who would have restored upright values to the White House.

The message did not resonate because while the Republican faithful were all too ready to believe it, the nation as a whole did not. Or rather, they chose to see the moral difference between the two men as one of degree. The economy is doing fine, Mr Clinton looks good and talks well. So why go for an old man who, for all his heroism in the war, has, after all, spent the last 36 years of his life playing the sordid Washington game?

The electorate's logic has been driving conservative commentators to despair. William Safire, the New York Times columnist, has written about nothing else this last month, deploring "the absence of outrage" at the "shamelessness" of the Clinton administration.

The truth that many of the political partisans in Washington choose to ignore is that the public is outraged - but at both sides. Mr Dole might be the better man, but he inhabits the same cesspool as the president and has played by similar rules.

Let us consider briefly the litany of Mr Clinton's sins. There is Whitewater and our knowledge that he fraternised, at least, with a cabal of Ark- ansas thieves; there is Travelgate and the allegations that Hillary Clinton fired the staff of the White House travel office and replaced them with her chums from Little Rock; there are the hundreds of FBI files the White House procured in what might have been an attempt to accumulate dirt on political rivals.

More recently, and this has been at the heart of Mr Safire's raging indignation, there have been reports of illicit campaign fund-raising in the Far East. And, hovering over everything - and far more familiar to the general public - there has been the president's near-inhaling and his history of philandering.

Now let us look at the record of Mr Dole. As for philandering, Mr Dole is no saint. Possibly, if the unverified stories are true, Mr Clinton has been more prolific, but Mr Dole did have an affair some 30 years ago, towards the end of his first marriage to a nurse at the hospital where he recovered from his grievous war wounds after the Second World War.

After Mr Clinton's affair with Gennifer Flowers, he kissed and made up with his wife. Mr Dole told his first wife it was all over with a typically terse "I want out" and ab-andoned her and his teenage daughter, begging the question: what, if anything, can Mr Dole teach Mr Clinton about "family values"?

As to dirty politics, it is on the record that Mr Dole has been far from immune to the blandishments of big business during his senatorial career. No company has contributed more campaign money to Mr Dole than the Gallo wine company. In exchange, Mr Dole went to great lengths to introduce legislation specifically, and successfully, aimed at improving Gallo's profits. Mr Dole also used his position to bolster the business of Archer Daniels Midland, a giant food company, which reciprocated not only by way of large campaign donations. In 1982, the chief executive of Archer Daniels sold a condominium in Florida - where Mr Dole spent last night watching the election returns - to him at below market price.

If Mr Clinton was at a disadvantage on the moral terrain, it was partly because he chose not to attack Mr Dole personally - itself no so much an honourable calculation as one based on focus-group testing, which shows the public is repelled by negative campaigning.

If the character question is dead in Americans' electoral calculations, it is not Mr Clinton who is to blame. Politically ignorant as the US public may be, when they say "they're all the same", their instincts are good.