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Hillary Rodham Clinton, Abortion Rights, Civil Rights Movement, New York Times Scandal, Public Image of U.S., Professional Sports

Hillary Rodham Clinton, Abortion Rights, Civil Rights Movement, New York Times Scandal, Public Image of U.S., Professional Sports

Former first lady and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is very much in the news this week, as she gives interviews and makes multiple television appearances to publicize her new memoir, Living History. Excerpts from her book leaked last week, and the news media have carried front-page stories focused primarily on her recollections of those fateful months during which her husband's infidelity with White House intern Monica Lewinsky became public knowledge, leading to his becoming only the second president in U.S. history to be impeached.

Clinton's image couldn't be more polarized at the moment -- 43% of Americans have a favorable opinion of her and 43% an unfavorable opinion. Political identification and ideology are by far the most significant predictors of Americans' opinions of her. Democrats and liberals, by and large, have a favorable opinion of Clinton, while Republicans and conservatives tend to have an unfavorable opinion.

This isn't surprising. Clinton is a lifelong Democrat, was an activist first lady in a Democratic administration, publicly castigated what she called a "right wing conspiracy," and is now an elected Democratic official. It's not surprising that Republicans and those on the right don't hold her in high esteem.

Clinton also has an image as a tough and intelligent person, while the public gives her much lower ratings in terms of being warm and friendly, or "sharing my values."

Hillary Clinton's image did become less political at one point over the last decade -- in 1998 and 1999 as her husband was going through the Lewinsky phase of his career. Republicans and conservatives became more positive toward the then-first lady, most likely because during this time they saw her not so much as a political figure closely aligned with her president husband, but as an aggrieved wife. Her favorable ratings went up, her approval rating for the job she was doing as first lady rose to 80%, and many more people said that her influence as first lady was positive than had been the case previously.

That sympathy did not last long, however. Her favorable ratings were back down to where they began by the end of her husband's term in office.

One of the most quoted portions of her book is the section in which she reveals her shock and dismay upon hearing from her husband on Aug. 15, 1998, that he had indeed had "inappropriate intimacy" with Lewinsky. Conservatives have jumped on those lines and questioned the likelihood that Clinton would not have suspected an inappropriate relationship before that point in time, particularly given the swirl of controversy concerning women that had surrounded Bill Clinton throughout his political career.

Our data show that by April 1998 (long before the confession reported in Sen. Clinton's book), almost two-thirds of the American public, believed that President Clinton had probably or definitely had sexual relations with Lewinsky. If Sen. Clinton was shocked, the significant majority of Americans were not.

Some observers have speculated on the impact of the current book and attendant publicity on Sen. Clinton's political career, particularly her reported aspirations to run for president in 2008. Clinton said in her Barbara Walters' interview and in an interview carried in TIME magazine that she has no "intentions" of running for president in 2008, but that phrase -- coming from a lawyer -- seems to have been very carefully selected to allow her plenty of wiggle room in the years ahead if she does decide to announce her candidacy.

Our recent poll showed that just about a third of Americans think Clinton is qualified to be president and say they would vote for her, while 44% say they would not. But history suggests that these types of sentiments can change significantly over time. In a December 1978 poll, for example, Jimmy Carter beat Ronald Reagan in a hypothetical trial heat by a 57% to 35% margin among registered voters. That's similar to the margin by which George W. Bush beats Sen. Clinton in a new ABC News poll. Of course, Reagan went on to win the presidency in 1980 by a comfortable margin.

Abortion Rights

Abortion -- one of the country's most emotionally charged issues -- remains very much in the news. Last week, the House of Representatives approved a ban on what opponents call "partial-birth abortion" (characterized officially in the bill as "intact dilation and extraction"). If differences with the Senate's version of the bill are worked out, it is likely that President Bush will sign it into law. Furthermore, the prospect of possible Supreme Court vacancies at the end of this term (with the resignations of Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and/or William Rehnquist being most probable), have re-ignited discussion of the impact of new justices on a possible Supreme Court vote on Roe v. Wade.

Abortion rights groups are already running television commercials designed to bring attention to the possibility that a new Supreme Court justice could tip the scales in favor of making abortion illegal in this country.

The public has what I think is a less extreme position on abortion than either the extreme pro-life or extreme pro-choice sides of the debate. The pattern of American attitudes toward abortion is fairly clear and steady. Relatively few Americans -- far less than a majority -- want abortion to be totally outlawed. Hundreds of polls have documented the fact that the public would not want a Supreme Court justice to pass a litmus test promising to throw out Roe.

At the same time, the majority of Americans favor at least some restrictions on abortion, and a slight majority considers abortion to be morally wrong. According to Gallup's latest January poll, when asked directly about "a law which would make it illegal to perform a specific abortion procedure conducted in the last six months of pregnancy, known as a partial birth abortion, except in cases necessary to save the life of the mother," a strong majority of Americans (70%) said they favored such a law.

Civil Rights Movement

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the integration of the University of Alabama, when President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, sent in the federal marshals to help keep order at Tuscaloosa.

It is clear that Kennedy's actions cost him politically at the time. His job approval ratings fell during that year (1963), due at least in part to an increasing resentment among Southerners of his actions relating to civil rights. A September 1963 poll, for example, found JFK with only a 62% approval rating, with a rating of 44% in the South and 69% in the rest of the United States. A July 1963 poll found only 30% of residents of the South rated his administration an "excellent" or "good."

Most tellingly, when Americans were asked on June 21-26 of that year, just after the Alabama incident, if they thought "the Kennedy Administration is pushing racial integration too fast, or not fast enough," 41% said "too fast" 31% said "about right," and 14% said "not fast enough." Among whites living in the South, 77% said the Kennedy administration was moving too fast on integration.

Overall, at that time there remained a great deal of skepticism among Americans about the impact of civil rights protests. Sixty percent of Americans in the summer of 1963 said that "mass demonstrations by Negroes are more likely to hurt the Negro's cause of racial equality," while just 27% said they were more likely to help. There was a sense of pessimism as well, with 63% of the public saying that relations between the "Negro and white races" would get worse during the next six months, and only 21% saying they would get better.

Asked directly about a new civil rights law that would give "all persons -- Negroes as well as whites -- the right to be served in public places such as hotels, restaurants, theaters, and similar establishments," 49% said that Congress should pass such a law, while 42% said Congress should not. The strongest opposition came from Southern whites, only 12% of whom favored such a law. Outside of the South, 55% of whites said they favored this type of legislation.

New York Times Scandal

Last week marked the latest chapter of the ongoing New York Times saga, as the paper's two top editors, Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd, resigned. The paper has been under intense media scrutiny due to the scandal surrounding Jayson Blair, a young reporter accused of multiple incidents of fabrication and plagiarism, and star reporter Rick Bragg, who allegedly made extensive use of freelance writers without giving them attribution.

There has been a good deal of speculation about the ultimate impact of all of this on the image of the news media in the United States. But our data don't necessarily suggest that the New York Times scandals have had an extremely deleterious impact on the media's image. Only 7% of Americans say they have been following the New York Times incident involving Blair very closely, putting it near the bottom of our list of news stories tracked over the last decade.

In addition, the image of the news media was pretty bad, even before the New York Times scandal. In our annual honesty and ethics poll conducted last year for example, only 26% of Americans rated the ethics of journalists as "very high" or "high." That put journalists slightly above building contractors and real estate agents, but well below the top-rated professions of nurses, pharmacists, and doctors.

We updated Americans' views of the accuracy of news stories in May, after the Blair story made headlines. The data showed that 36% of Americans said that news stories usually had their facts straight and were accurate. That seems fairly low, but we saw similar numbers earlier this year, well before the Times scandal broke. In fact, it appears that the 2000 presidential election dispute was a major precipitating event causing these low ratings of the news media. A December 2000 poll found that only 32% of Americans rated the news media's stories as accurate, a big drop from 50% who felt that way in July 1998.

Public Image of the United States

A new poll sponsored by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, released last week, showed that attitudes toward the United States in countries around the world "are markedly lower than they were a year ago."

Buried within the poll was an interesting section on belief in God, based on responses to a question asking if it is necessary to believe in God in order to be personally moral. A majority of Americans, 58%, said yes. But less than a majority said yes in many western European countries (Germany, Italy, Great Britain, and France) and most eastern European countries (the Slovak Republic, Poland, Bulgaria, Russia, and the Czech Republic). Less than a majority said yes in Japan and Canada. But a majority agreed in all of the other countries included in the project, including those in Central and South America, the Pacific Rim, and Africa.

Professional Sports

Two major sporting events take place this week. The fourth game of the NBA Finals will be played tomorrow between the San Antonio Spurs and the New Jersey Nets. On Thursday, the U.S. Open, one of professional golf's four major tournaments, gets underway at the Olympia Fields course south of Chicago.

The percentage of Americans who are fans of each of these two professional sports is roughly the same -- 27% say they are fans of professional golf while 29% say they are fans of professional basketball. But the makeup of the fan bases is significantly different. Basketball fans skew younger, including 41% of those aged 18 to 29 but only 22% of those 50 and older. Golf, not shockingly, skews older, with only 18% of 18- to 29-year-olds claiming to be fans, compared to 31% of those aged 50 to 64 and 28% of those 65 and older.

Professional basketball also has a very strong appeal to Americans who classify their race as something other than white: 47% of nonwhites say they are fans, compared to just 24% of whites. Golf, on the other hand, skews in the opposite direction, with 21% of non-whites saying they are fans, compared to 29% of whites.

The NBA draft is coming up on June 26, and Cleveland, which won the right to the number one pick, is almost certainly going to select high school phenomenon LeBron James. Our data show that 18% of basketball fans say that James will be one of the best players ever, while 55% say that he will be very good. When asked about his $90 million endorsement contract with Nike, 59% of fans said this will turn out to be a good deal for the company, while 33% think it will be a bad deal.

Dr. Frank Newport is the author of Polling Matters (Warner Books, 2004) and The Evangelical Voter, and has more than 15 years of experience directing the nation's oldest monitor of American public opinion.


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