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Public Generally Tolerant Of Presidential Extramarital Affairs

Public Generally Tolerant Of Presidential Extramarital Affairs

Believe Most Presidents Have Strayed

by David W. Moore


PRINCETON, N.J. -- In the wake of the allegations that President Clinton had sexual relations with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, many pundits have noted with surprise that Clinton's job approval rating has not suffered as a result. Furthermore, the public seems unconcerned about what Clinton does in his personal life so long as he does a good job leading the country. A recent Gallup poll suggests that perhaps one reason the public has not reacted more negatively to the allegations against Clinton is that most Americans think Clinton's personal behavior in this area is not much different from that of other presidents: 59% think other presidents have had extramarital affairs and 75% think that Clinton's personal faults are no worse than most other presidents.

Such findings do not mean, however, that the public is not concerned about the moral values of their presidents. Americans do look for strong moral leadership, but they take a largely pragmatic view. While 61% think that in general a president must have strong moral values to be effective, only about half that number -- 31% -- say that it is critical for a president to have high moral values in his personal life. Another 55% say it is important but not critical.

Another indication of the public's pragmatic approach: When asked which characteristic is most important in rating how a president is handling his job, 55% of Americans say it is how he manages the government, 22% cite his position on the issues, and just 16% say it is his moral values.

Evaluating a Presidential Candidate
When Americans are asked what they need to know to evaluate a presidential candidate, 65% say they do not need to know whether the candidate has had extramarital affairs and 72% say they do not need to know if the candidate has had a child out of wedlock. Americans are more divided on whether they need to know if the candidate is homosexual or not, but a slight majority -- 54% -- say that information is not pertinent.

Unlike their general lack of concern about a presidential candidate's sexual behavior, 8 out of 10 Americans do want to know whether a presidential candidate is an alcoholic or has a gambling problem or has a pattern of not paying debts. And 56% want to know if the candidate has used drugs.

The Untarnished Image of John F. Kennedy
In recent years, President Kennedy's sexual exploits while in office have become almost common knowledge, but with little effect on his high standing among the general public. In 1990, 84% of Americans said they approved of his performance in office, while today 77% say they approve. Most Americans -- 85% -- believe Kennedy did have extramarital affairs while in office, but among this group, Kennedy's rating is still 75%.

While Kennedy's rating is down somewhat from 1990, it is still the highest among the five former presidents rated in the poll: 74% of Americans today say they approve of the way George Bush handled the job of president, 69% of Ronald Reagan, 32% of Richard Nixon and 65% of Jimmy Carter.

The current results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,013 adults, conducted January 30-February 1, 1998. For results based on a sample of this size, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects could be plus or minus 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Do you think most presidents have or have not had extramarital affairs while they were president?

Have had


Have not


No opinion




Would you describe Bill Clinton's faults as worse than most other presidents, or as no worse than most other presidents?



No worse


No opinion




From what you have heard or read -- do you believe that John F. Kennedy did or did not have extramarital affairs while he was President?

Yes, did


No, did not


No opinion




From what you have heard, read, or remember about some of our past presidents, please tell me if you approve or disapprove of the way they handled their job as president. First,.. Next.. (RANDOM ORDER)

Approve Disapprove


John F. Kennedy 77% 17%


George Bush 74 24


Ronald Reagan 69 29


Jimmy Carter 65 29


Richard Nixon 32 61


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