Privileges abound


WASHINGTON -- We live in the age of proliferation -- not of nukes, but of presidential privileges.

In its determined crusade to hornswoggle independent counsel Kenneth Starr, the Clinton White House has manufactured many previously unknown privileges and put inventive new twists on old ones.

They have argued, for instance, that executive privilege applies not only to the president, but also to employees who might talk to him. While the courts have hinted that first ladies can hide from scrutiny under the auspices of privilege, nobody seems inclined to agree that a conversation with President Clinton obliges participants to observe priestly silence. Indeed, the White House dropped the argument the moment Mr. Starr challenged it in court.

More interesting is the Justice Department's belief that a "protective privilege" prevents members of the Secret Service from testifying about the president's behavior. The theory goes like this: Presidents must trust their bodyguards. If agents rat them out for high crimes, misdemeanors or liaisons with interns, chief executives might begin to keep protectors at arm's length. This would enable fiends to pop the president.

This interpretation transforms the Secret Service into a praetorian guard and lifts the chief executive above the laws he has sworn to uphold.

The view makes no sense. Secret Service agents testified during Watergate. Furthermore, the officers embroiled in L'affaire Lewinsky aren't the ones who flank the president when he steps into public view. They were at more than arm's length from the Clinton-Lewinsky transactions, since their main job is to stand outside the door.

There are more privileges, of course. Team Clinton urged the Supreme Court this week to rule that attorney-client privilege covers communications between the president and anybody with a law degree.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals swatted down a similar argument when the administration unveiled it in a Whitewater case, but that hasn't stopped the White House from using it again to muzzle such men as Clinton pal Bruce Lindsey.

Finally, the creative geniuses at Casa Clinton have asked the court to honor an unnamed privilege -- certainly not the first time this administration has asked jurisprudes to fret over unmentionable things.

The mystery privilege leads one to wonder what Team Clinton has cooked up for its latest showdown with Mr. Starr.

Perhaps the president has invoked the gullible press privilege: The idea that nobody should care about the president's extracurricular activities if reporters don't. After all, aren't journalists the conscience of the nation?

Then again, they could have called upon pollster privilege: The belief that as long as presidents ride high in the polls, they can do whatever they want with aides, including keeping them from blabbing in court.

Maybe they have pulled priapic privilege: The right not to disclose physiognomic minutiae to innocent judges and jurors.

Privilege, placed in the hands of inventive lawyers, can become a many splendored thing, so subtle and complex that not even the finest minds can decipher it or penetrate its enigmatic ways.

That, at least, is the president's hope. Don't discount his chances of success. Recent experience shows that his crew has no peer when it comes to obstruction and obfuscation -- both of which are covered, of course, under the everybody does it privilege.

Tony Snow is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/04/98

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