- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2003

Jason Fodeman was 9 years old and cared more about video games than politics when Bill Clinton was elected president.

But by the time he graduated from high school, Mr. Fodeman says, a “legacy of moral degeneracy” had inspired his contempt. He can list from memory each of the “violations” — from Buddhist-temple fund-raisers to Monica Lewinsky’s false affidavit — that led him to his deep distrust of Mr. Clinton.

“Clinton presented this facetious facade,” says Mr. Fodeman, now a college student and author of a new book, “How to Destroy A Village: What the Clintons Taught A Seventeen Year Old.”

“We elect a president to serve our interests, to protect the American people, and during those years Clinton only protected himself,” the 20-year-old author says.

Mr. Fodeman may not be alone in his distrust of Mr. Clinton, but instances of public figures betraying their constituents extend beyond one administration, transcending party lines and reaching far beyond politics.

Doctors, lawyers, pilots, journalists — many professions rely on public trust. But from clergymen who prey on children to business executives accused of fraud, decades of high-profile scandals have shaken confidence in institutions and leaders. In an atmosphere poisoned by mistrust, Americans are quick to credit new accusations — including claims that President Bush lied about Iraq’s nuclear weapons program in his State of the Union address.

Surveys show Americans are increasingly losing confidence in public and private institutions.

A 2002 study conducted by Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center (NORC) found that public confidence in major companies, organized religion and Congress showed higher levels immediately after September 11, but has declined since.

Faith in the military, however, has risen 2 percent since 2001, said the study, which polled 805 U.S. residents and 296 New Yorkers via telephone.

“Trust has been eroding with most institutes over time,” said Tom Smith, director of the NORC’s General Social Survey — an organization that has tracked statistics about trust in institutions for several decades. When asked about the most important virtue for an institution, “the number one thing that people say is ‘trust,’” he said.

Mr. Smith cautioned, however, that confidence in companies, institutions and government bodies don’t necessarily fall in synch. For example, a loss of public faith in Enron probably won’t affect trust in another major corporation, he said.

“When you’re dealing with institutions, you’re taking in a few relevant news stories that deal with scandal,” he said. “The face of major companies in recent years has been Enron and WorldCom, but not all companies have been involved in major scandals.”

In recent decades, many historians and pundits have associated Americans’ declining levels of trust with a series of high-profile scandals that began in the 1960s. The bungled CIA-backed invasion of Cuba and the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy were followed by the demoralizing experience of military defeat in Vietnam, complete with reports of U.S. troops slaughtering civilians at My Lai.

Trust-destroying scandals seemed to escalate in the 1970s — when Watergate forced President Nixon to resign — and continued in the 1980s, as Americans learned of the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages deal and high-level wrongdoing in the savings-and-loan crisis.

Scandals have spread suspicion over the decades, but researchers say declining trust also may be driven in part by divorce rates, television, larger communities, less job security and the computer-technology boom, which some say isolates children from their peers. It was once believed that distrust coincided with crime rates, but crime in major cities fell in the 1990s, while citizens’ levels of mistrust continued to rise, Mr. Smith said.

When it comes to trust in institutions, however, “the ratings very clearly come from performance,” Mr. Smith said, citing as examples the revelations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and the collapse of telecommunications giant WorldCom.

Trust in institutions seems to be based “on an objective evaluation of how they’re doing,” he said, adding: “It’s not like they’re all moving together. Usually, the drop can be related to a high-profile scandal.”

Trust — or a lack thereof — also manifests itself in everyday legal documents, from affidavits to employment contracts, which bind signers to their word. Political candidates who have broken promises can expect their own words to haunt them.

Public confidence is important for public figures seeking and maintaining office, says Joel Clark, a political science professor teaching “Washington Ethics: Crisis, Reform and Reaction” through the University of California-Santa Barbara’s D.C. program.

He says many students in his class say they are disappointed with politics.

“They all are pretty turned off by politics and politicians. They see politics as sleazy and underhanded,” Mr. Clark said.

The Bush administration as well as intelligence agencies appear to have taken a public-confidence hit with the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he said. The decision to keep troops in Iraq also may reduce trust, he said.

“There’s that remaining question of why we’re still there,” he said. “It could potentially have a profound impact on public trust.”

People might be even more distrustful if they paid more attention to public affairs, Mr. Clark said.

“People have to be paying attention to realize their trust has been broken,” he said, “and I think people are pretty tuned out to what goes on.”

Mr. Fodeman is definitely not tuned out. The young author’s book on the Clinton scandals — he says he wrote it to “point out the Clinton legacy of moral degeneracy” — has garnered praise from several officials, including David Schippers, former chief investigative counsel of the House Judiciary Committee.

Growing up in a Westport, Conn., with far more interest in baseball and Nintendo than politics, Mr. Fodeman credits the Clinton administration’s “immoral actions and repeated violations of the public trust” with turning his views toward conservatism.

He cited the “Travelgate” scandal, in which the administration fired seven career employees from the White House travel office. He was also disillusioned at age 15 by Mr. Clinton’s finger-wagging denial of an affair with his former intern, Monica Lewinsky. The president acknowledged the affair only after it was proved by DNA evidence on Miss Lewinsky’s dress.

“Not only did the Clintons teach children all of the wrong lessons, they also have significantly lowered the bar for future politicians,” Mr. Fodeman writes in his book.

He says critics may dismiss his account as “that of another Clinton-basher,” but the issue of trust “transcends labels,” the Johns Hopkins University pre-med student writes.

“All participants should hold their candidates and leaders to the highest standards, which should be a prerequisite.”

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