Clinton may leave weakened office Legacy: Even if President Clinton never faces impeachment, the court rulings against him appear to have spun a restrictive web around the most powerful office in the world.

Sun Journal

August 13, 1998|By LYLE DENNISTON

Every president leaves a legacy -- an intended or unintended bequest that helps or hinders his successors. Part of Bill Clinton's legacy could be a significantly diminished presidency. Whether or not he faces impeachment, Clinton's legal woes already seem to have made the institution of the presidency smaller and more vulnerable to adversaries. Sun national staff writer Lyle Denniston examines this prospect.

What would it mean, in fact, if the presidency is "diminished?"

Any whiff of scandal or wrongdoing could turn a future president's adversaries loose on aggressive investigations. These inquiries could exploit the institutional weaknesses that have developed from the court battles Clinton and his lawyers have waged and usually lost. The ability of presidents to resist determined foes has been impaired. Overall, presidents cannot expect as much confidentiality in their dealings with close advisers.

Would those investigations be conducted by independent counsels, such as Kenneth W. Starr, the special prosecutor handling the Monica Lewinsky and Whitewater matters?

Maybe not. In fact, the independent counsel law under which Starr is operating may not be extended beyond next year's scheduled expiration, mainly because of widespread criticism of Starr's investigation. Future investigations could be conducted by Congress, or by individuals who sue presidents -- as in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case.

Are the scandals surrounding Clinton the real cause of any problems for future presidents?

No. Other presidents have been hit by scandal, and the presidency did not suffer lasting effects. The Watergate scandal actually led to creation of a president's right to claim "executive privilege" to protect White House privacy. Clinton's alleged sexual escapades themselves have not undermined the presidency. Rather, Clinton has chosen or been forced to test the legal ramparts that have long protected the presidency, and those failed efforts have eroded presidential protections.

Since the Constitution sets up three equal branches (the presidency, Congress, the courts) that check and balance each other, wouldn't the Clinton legacy be just one of those occasional shifts in the balance of power -- this time, away from the presidency?

Some might see it that way. But part of why divided government has worked so well is that the relations among the branches are not precisely defined. Accommodations and compromises must be reached to avoid constitutional crises. Clinton may be leaving behind narrow and strictly defined limits on presidential independence.

4 What is the most important of those limitations?

Probably the Supreme Court's denial of Clinton's constitutional claim, in the Jones case, that presidents should be insulated from civil lawsuits while in office. If Jones' lawsuit had been delayed, Clinton might not be facing any of his current legal problems. His lawyers' prediction that future presidents might face similar lawsuits now seems more realistic than the Supreme Court thought it was. The Supreme Court probably had no clue that the Jones case would lead to something like the Lewinsky scandal.

What other limitations will affect future presidents?

If lower-court rulings against Clinton are upheld by the Supreme Court, a president's closest and highest-level counselors in the White House will be vulnerable to demands that they testify against a president. That could put distance between them and the president. The presidential right of "executive privilege," initially gained by President Richard M. Nixon, is likely to lose much of its protective power. In addition, a "kitchen cabinet" -- outside advisers who have the ear of the chief executive -- will be vulnerable to summons as witnesses, cutting into the intimacy of their roles.

Also, White House lawyers will have less right to resist outside demands to disclose advice they gave the president. So presidents will have to turn more often to privately paid attorneys; those ties will still be shielded by attorney-client secrecy. And Secret Service agents who protect the president and White House aides who serve him could be called to testify about what they have seen and heard.

Didn't Clinton bring all of this on himself, simply by stalling and provoking fights?

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