Clinton has surrendered his status as 'just folks'

January 09, 1995|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- Throughout much of our history, our presidents have tried to convince us that they are ordinary people.

This may have started when George Washington refused to be addressed as "Your Highness" and opted for "Mr. President" instead.

By 1840, William Henry Harrison was campaigning for president as a homespun man of the people. In the first recorded use of political "image" advertising, he used a log cabin and a cider barrel on his posters to remind people that he was a down-home kind of guy.

In reality, Harrison lived in a Georgian mansion and owned 2,000 lush acres farmed by tenant farmers. Nor had he been born in a log cabin, but rather in a fine two-story brick home. He was the wealthy son of a governor, not a rustic.

But the public loved the image and Harrison won the election.

George Bush, the millionaire New England son of a millionaire New England U.S. senator, was transformed in 1988 into TC horseshoe-pitching, beer-swigging Texan -- even though his Texas "home" was a suite in a Houston hotel.

And it worked for him. At least for one election. (Switching from horseshoes to golf once he took office may have been, in retrospect, a mistake.)

Bill Clinton repeatedly emphasized in his 1992 campaign how he was just a small-town boy from Hope, Ark., a person who felt our pain because he was one of us.

On the day he announced his candidacy, Clinton said that, as president, he would represent "the hard-working, middle-class families of America who think most of the help goes to those at the top of the ladder, some goes to the bottom and no one speaks for them."

And when he accepted his party's nomination he said: "For too long those who play by the rules and keep the faith have gotten the shaft, and those who cut corners and cut deals have been rewarded." (He did not mention Hillary's commodities trading at the time, but he had a lot on his mind that night.)

Bill Clinton was the defender of the ordinary man and woman, the man and woman who sought no special favors, but just played by the rules and took what was coming.

Now that Bill Clinton is in office, however, he finds being ordinary has one major drawback: Ordinary people can get sued.

It's a pain, but it's part of the price we pay for living in a democracy.

But Clinton has decided that in his case the price might be too high and that he might not be so ordinary after all.

Paula Jones is suing him, alleging that he sexually harassed her while he was governor of Arkansas.

But Clinton argues that he cannot be sued because he is president of the United States and should not have to respond to any lawsuits while he is in office.

Constitutional scholars are split over this. Some say that if a president can be sued while in office, it would take too much of his time away from his very important duties.

Others argue that the law is the law and that no man or woman should be above it.

On Dec. 28, a federal judge gave Clinton what seemed like a limited victory: He said that Clinton does not have to face trial on Jones' suit while he is president, but that the pretrial portion of the suit can proceed and Clinton will have to respond to questions by Jones' lawyers.

This type of compromise ruling makes little sense, however.

Clinton argues that fighting lawsuits will take too much of his time. The federal judge agrees on one hand and delays the suit. But on the other hand, the judge says Clinton must use his precious time to continue to fight the lawsuit in its pretrial stage.

The White House hailed the judge's ruling as a victory for Clinton. And, a few months ago, it looked like getting a delay in the case until after the 1996 election would be a good thing: Clinton would not have to face an embarrassing trial at the same time he was facing the voters.

Today, however, getting a delay does not look like that much of a political plus. Clinton will have to face a very tough re-election campaign with the Paula Jones suit still hanging over his head.

And, by insisting on a special privilege because he is president, he has given up something: He can no longer claim to be one of us, a person who plays under the same rules that we do.

And voters might decide that the best way to solve this problem is to make Clinton an ordinary citizen again.

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