WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- President Clinton needs the Supreme Court ruling that Paula Jones can proceed with her sexual-harassment suit against him while he is in office like, as Jack Benny used to say, a moose needs a hat rack.
With the Whitewater case still being investigated by independent counsel Kenneth Starr and with Senate and House committees delving into the excesses of his 1996 re-election campaign fund-raising, Mr. Clinton already has enough personal distractions.
What makes this court decision particularly troublesome for the president is that it keeps before the American public his political soft underbelly -- the nagging suspicion that he was, or even still is, a man of weak character and untrustworthiness with a lack of respect for women.
This problem did not appreciably damage the president's quest for a second term, when women voted for him in notably larger numbers than did men -- 54 percent to 38, according to Voter News Service exit polls. But he can expect in the months ahead to be plagued with further circulation of Ms. Jones' allegations -- that he had state police bring her to a Little Rock hotel room in 1991, while he was governor of Arkansas, and pressed her, then a state employee, to perform a sex act with him.
Justice John Paul Stevens, in writing the unanimous opinion that there is no constitutional protection for a president from lawsuits involving conduct unrelated to his presidential duties, did offer that a trial judge if he chose could delay the trial or pretrial fact-finding out of "the high respect that is owed to the office of the chief executive." With three years and eight months still to go in Mr. Clinton's second term, however, any trial judge will be under heavy pressure, especially from Clinton critics, to proceed.
Justice Stevens' opinion also brushed aside the argument that such a trial would be unacceptably debilitating to a working president. Mr. Clinton's testimony, he said, could be "taken at the White House at a time that will accommodate his busy schedule [and] there would be no necessity for the president to attend in person."
But even if Mr. Clinton is not compelled to appear at such a trial, and assuming he will continue to deny categorically Ms. Jones' allegations, the court's decision has to be a most unwelcome turn of events for him at this time. He is very conspicuously grappling with ways to put the stamp of history on his White House tenure for an administration that has yet to achieve anything remotely historical in scope.
Having failed in his one major effort in his first term, a sweeping reform of the nation's health-care system, Mr. Clinton has been attempting to substitute with eloquence and exhortation -- on matters ranging from combating racial discrimination to fighting illiteracy -- to achieve an elevated niche in the history books. The last thing he needs now is a thorough airing of Paula Jones' charges, which, judging from details in her 1994 lawsuit seeking $700,000 in damages, will be embarrassing, to say the least.
An act of Congress
Justice Stevens gave Mr. Clinton one out in indicating that Congress could give a sitting president protection against lawsuits of this private nature, but that certainly is not going to happen with the Republicans in charge at least through 1998, and probably not even if the Democrats were to regain control in the next off-year elections. For fellow Democrats in Congress to try to shield him -- a president already disappointing to many of them on policy grounds -- would bring the kind of political heat they aren't likely to invite.
In writing that Ms. Jones "like every other citizen who properly invokes [judicial] jurisdiction has a right to an orderly disposition of her claims," Justice Stevens has reminded the country that an American president is not a monarch. So Mr. Clinton can expect in the weeks and months ahead to continue to be the subject of barbs and ridicule on the late-night television shows and the daytime radio talk shows that feed off such circumstances. It may not seem fair, but fairness is what the court says it is.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 5/28/97