Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Private Lawsuits Could Turn the Presidency into a Circus

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Private Lawsuits Could Turn the Presidency into a Circus

Article excerpt

Many unpleasant currents converge in the "sexual harassment" charges filed against President Bill Clinton last week in Little Rock by a former Arkansas state employee, Paula Corbin Jones. She claims that in May 1991 then-Gov. Clinton called her to a hotel suite and made unwanted sexual advances.

Jones first told her story in February at a Cliff Jackson special - yet another press conference called by the self-styled former "friend" who for years has merchandised one tale after another in his tireless crusade to besmirch Bill Clinton. Since there were no witnesses to the alleged incident, Jones' word is all we have to go on. Robert Bennett, the president's lawyer, has categorically denied the charges on his behalf.

No doubt Clinton's partisan enemies rejoice at yet another trashy shot at him. But their turn will come, for it requires no great depth of imagination to see where the politics of character assassination is leading. If Jones succeeds only in making a nuisance of herself, her case will offer a tempting precedent for any foe of any officeholder anywhere. A sitting president is merely the biggest imaginable target.

Unfortunately, the American press tends to be cowed by the talismanic words "sexual harassment," which rank next to "child abuse" as a self-validating accusation. The response, therefore, is boilerplate legal pieties. If Richard Nixon had to answer a subpoena for his tapes, or Clarence Thomas face Anita Hill's charges, shouldn't a president be obliged to do likewise? The easy answer is yes.

But the easy answer is too easy. There are abundant distinctions to be made. And there is some constitutional evidence that those who wrote the U.S. Constitution intended these sideshows to be deferred during a president's term of office.

Richard Nixon was not charged with a pre-presidential personal indiscretion. He was charged with abusing the powers of the presidency as an "unindicted co-conspirator" plotting to corrupt the course of justice - a suspicion eventually confirmed by the White House tapes. Clarence Thomas was accused of abuses related to his performance as head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which makes rules about behavior in the workplace. …

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