Second-Tern Presidents: History Says

By Ferrell, Robert H. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Second-Tern Presidents: History Says

Ferrell, Robert H., Presidential Studies Quarterly

President William J. Clinton's second term will assuredly place him in history. The newspapers and other purveyors of journalism, the so-called media, tell us that; common sense says similarly. What happens in that term will raise or lower his reputation beyond its present "average" estimate as set out in the poll of historians, political scientists, and other presidential experts published in The New York Times Magazine on December 15, 1996, by the well-known historian, Arthur M. Schlessinger, Jr.(1)

The pundits are pointing mostly to the personal dangers the president may encounter, which they say are three: Paula Jones, Thomas Huang, and Whitewater. These clouds on the blue sky of the Clinton future are already larger than a person's hand, and may cause major difficulties. The worst of them is probably the Jones suit, which came before the Supreme Court in mid-January 1997, as this issue of PSQ went to press. The plaintiff is alleging sexual harassment, in itself a serious charge. It is also serious for a president of the United States whose reputation concerning women has been subject to slurs and contentions. It is an especially awkward charge because of a claim that the then-governor of Arkansas desired to take the most gross--the case's particulars are unprintable--improprieties during a meeting solely between the governor and his accuser. What therefore cannot be proved absolutely will have to be proved circumstantially. If the case goes to trial it will involve a jury, perhaps television, and lurid testimony that will draw vast public attention. Even if the Supreme Court only permits the gathering of evidence, what lawyers describe as "discovery," and postpones the trial until after the president's second term, this will bring journalistic attention of a sort that never has focused on a sitting president.

The name of Thomas Huang may pass from public memory, but it encompasses all the accusations of impropriety in raising money for the president's campaigning or defenses against such suits as that of Paula Jones.

Whitewater, to be sure, is a generic term for alleged financial improprieties both of the president and his wife, involving in part a savings and loan institution in Arkansas. Hillary Rodham Clinton has had to confront accusations that her Little Rock law firm was involved in questionable actions, and although these allegations cannot attach directly to anything her husband did, they will be connected in the public print media and by radio and television.

And so what does history say? As one looks back to the past, it does appear that the three proposed Clintonian dangers of the 1990s--the Jones case, the Huang connection, and Whitewater--have been overdrawn. History says they either will be postponed, if trials are involved, or will fall of their own unlikelihood.

Common sense also says that the president of our time is extraordinarily intelligent, capable of expressing himself better perhaps than any other president of our century, and is altogether capable of removing himself from the tightest of places.

It may be a poor prediction to dismiss the Jones case.(2) Historically there is some testimony on the other side. After the death of President Warren G. Harding in 1923, a woman who had grown up in that president's home city of Marion, Ohio, and had a teenage infatuation with him, published a book entitled The President's Daughter in which she named him as the father of her child. When the owner of a hotel in Marion dared to sell a book by a deceased local physician that challenged her book, she sued the hotel owner for $50,000 in damages, a large sum in those days. The case came to trial in federal district court in Toledo in 1931. The issue was two-fold, whether the statements Nan Britton made in the book were true and whether at the time she made them she had a $50,000 reputation. The first point was unprovable. Britton claimed to have received dozens of letters from the president, but her book contained none of them--no presidential "heart-revealments," to use her description.

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