Public Opinion: Reluctant Observers
Public opinion had a meaningful role to play in determining the outcome of the Clinton–Lewinsky scandal. Poll sample results were advanced by both investigators and investigated to validate and support their respective lines of argument, and popular understanding of the nature and meaning of the scandal had a significant impact upon the decisions made in the political realm. Clinton found that his private indiscretions were accepted by the American people, seemingly upon condition that he continued to perform to the nation's satisfaction in the political realm. As this text has stressed, he therefore assumed a conventional political role, emphasizing his determination to press on with a national agenda and to attend to his 1996 election pledges. Whatever Clinton's personal intentions, he had to accept that the Congress and the media would concentrate heavily upon the theme of scandal and exploit it to the full for partisan and profitable gain. This, at the outset, meant that in the public realm there existed a battle to set the political agenda and to interpret the meaning and severity of the scandal. In this respect the American people were immediately faced with a stark choice: to believe the word of the President or to entertain the arguments of his detractors. The fluctuations in public opinion highlighted the relative strengths and weaknesses of each side's case, and accommodated media communication and interpretation of the scandal as it evolved.
This chapter evaluates the meaning of public opinion to each of the main players in this political scandal. Starr, the Congress and Clinton had all to consider the role and impact of public sentiment upon their actions and, moreover, how public opinion might affect the attitudes of their opponents. The Lewinsky scandal was a credibility war, where all sought to bolster their own position and, at the same time,