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No Precedent for Presidents, Anyone Else

By Stephen E. Ambrose
Sunday, April 5, 1998; Page C04

BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss.—The dismissal of Paula Corbin Jones's lawsuit against President Bill Clinton is not a turning point in the history of the presidency, or anything remotely like it. It is a specific and unique event. It establishes no binding precedent, and teaches no clear lesson, just as Richard Nixon's Watergate case failed to teach, or deter his successors.

In 1974, following Nixon's resignation, it was the common wisdom that never again would a president dare to withhold evidence from a congressional committee or a special prosecutor, or invoke the so-called doctrine of executive privilege. But in fact it was done less than 15 years after Nixon's resignation, by the Reagan administration in the Iran-contra case, and again 25 years later by the Clinton administration.

One would have thought that a clear lesson from Watergate was that a president could not escape his problems at home by taking a foreign trip, or that a president who is in trouble could save himself by arguing that he could avoid scrutiny about the past by invoking his obligations to the present. But that's just what Clinton did in the past few weeks by loudly protesting that he should be given time to do the job that the American people had hired him to do and when he headed off to Africa.

Of course, there will be consequences of the Jones case. Perhaps the Supreme Court will be cautious in the future about allowing a lawsuit against a sitting president to go forward, as it should have been in the first place, since it is obvious that the court was badly mistaken in saying dealing with lawsuits would not take much of a president's time.

It is possible that the biggest effect of the Jones no-kiss-but-still-tell tale may be in the murky area of sexual harassment and workplace behavior. The message seems to be that lewd and lascivious conduct is okay so long as the boss doesn't fire or punish a woman who says no to his advances, or that groping is okay so long as the man stops when the woman says no. Another message appears to be that we all know successful politicians have a strong sex drive and that power is its own aphrodisiac, so we shouldn't be surprised when they engage in sexual escapades. Sex differs from other scandals: Many of us have committed sexual indiscretions -- but few of us have ever ordered a break-in at our competitor's office or the wiretapping of a rival's phone. And despite the media circus and the amount of time that Clinton's people have put into defending him, none of this is going to have much effect on the office of the presidency.

Decades ago, it was widely accepted in this country that while God had given men a brain and a penis, He only gave them enough blood to run one at a time. Boys would be boys because they couldn't help themselves. That was why we had separate dorms for boys and girls in college, and chaperons at dances.

Those days are gone, and it seems to me that women in the workplace had better look out. Meanwhile, no one can tell what baggage future presidents will bring to office with them; as always, the only thing we can know for certain about the future is that it will be different. Each 21st-century president, like all previous presidents, will have his or her own sins to answer for. There is no precedent in the Paula Jones case that will govern. Indeed, when one considers the variety of contretemps that previous presidents have gotten themselves into, it is clear that we can not even begin to anticipate those that future presidents will face.

Stephen Ambrose is the author of biographies of Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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