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Future Presidents Could Feel the Sting of Paula Jones Case


WASHINGTON — If the never-ending tension between the presidency and the Congress is seen as a seesaw, the presidential end of the tottering board took on a new weight this week. And it wasn't doing too well to begin with.

Beyond the immediate distractions and political pitfalls the Supreme Court laid in Bill Clinton's path with its Tuesday decision that allows Paula Corbin Jones' sexual-harassment suit against him to proceed, it has created the potential for even greater challenges for future presidents.

These future occupants of the White House could face a growing number of lawsuits in this increasingly litigious society, say constitutional scholars and historians. Perhaps most important, they say, in opening a sitting president to the demands of private lawsuits, the ruling continues the steady denigration of the institution of the presidency.

The decision comes at a time when many believe the presidency has not yet recovered from the blows that occurred a generation ago--the credibility gap created by Lyndon B. Johnson's prosecution of the Vietnam War and the stain of Watergate, which brought Richard Nixon's downfall.

In a sign of the erosion of the presidency's aura--sturdy until mid-century but lace-like now, within hours of the court decision, "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno found a link between Nixon's resignation and Clinton's problems. Consider the similarities between the two presidents, he suggested: "Both got in trouble in hotels . . . "

Like the Watergate scandal and misleading government accounts of the Vietnam War, the further airing of Jones' allegation that Clinton--then the governor of Arkansas--propositioned her in a Little Rock hotel in 1991 "raises questions about the incumbent's moral character," said historian Robert Dallek. But more than that, he added, "what it's bound to do is undercut the president's credibility and have echoes for the institution of the presidency for the foreseeable future."

The presidency, of course, has withstood serious hits in the past--not the least of which have been delivered by the questionable abilities and actions of some of the incumbents.

But the office itself once was revered. Now, many people no longer consider it a suitable job for their children.

A poll conducted last autumn by Princeton Survey Research found that by a 2-1 ratio, parents wouldn't want their children to become president. What career choices ranked higher? Professor, doctor, minister, carpenter, professional athlete. (It did, however, rank above that of movie star.)

Some scholars believe that taken from a narrow constitutional perspective, the court's ruling may have little long-range impact.

"What the court dealt with is not official action by the president, and the chance that somebody who is going to be president, or is president, getting involved in some serious legal problem that is not officially related [to the job] is pretty slim," said Mark Tushnet, a professor at the Georgetown University School of Law.

Indeed, said Peter Wallison, a White House counsel during the Reagan administration, "most of us go through life without being a defendant in a civil lawsuit. There's no reason why presidents can't."

But for Lloyd Gardner, a professor of American history at Rutgers University in New Jersey, the decision carries with it "incredibly broad ramifications."

Along with further weakening the appeal of the office, he said, it may well open those who seek it to harassing lawsuits, or to suits that might not otherwise have been filed were it not for the potential defendant's celebrity.

Even more important and longer lasting, with much of a president's power derived from the office's ability to command respect--and turn that respect into persuasion and public support--"it weakens the president in the eyes of the Congress and makes him more vulnerable to pressures from Capitol Hill," Gardner said. "This system posits a tension between the two; this lifts the congressional side."

And that, Gardner added, "is very worrisome."

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