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Pundits & Prose

She Says, He Says

Clinton's Legacy Hangs In The Balance

By Charles Bierbauer/CNN

WASHINGTON (May 30) -- "See You in Court" said the headlines in the New York Daily News and the Boston Herald this week.

No points for originality. Plenty for uniformity. The tabloids have had a field day with the sexual harassment suit of Paula Jones vs. Bill Clinton. Not just the tabloids. It was everyone's headline when the Supreme Court ruled that she did not have to wait until he leaves the White House to get her day in court. Most were in provocative, though not lurid, terms.

It's a "major embarrassment" or "ugly spectacle" or "smarmy, distracting circus," according to the editorial pages across the country.

Some appeared to take sides: "Bill Clinton's title doesn't shield him from his libido," wrote the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Some weighed the consequences of the court ruling: "It is no longer unthinkable that private citizens with a grudge, real or imagined, would file suit against a president they didn't like," the Baltimore Sun contemplated.

None mistook the gravity of the Supreme Court's unanimity: "It's especially helpful that the often contentious justices spoke with one voice regarding this delicate and divisive controversy," the St. Paul Pioneer Press noted. The box score -- 9-0 -- was an unmistakable signal that even the justices Clinton appointed to the court owe him no special favor.

With every headline screaming, every editorial page warning, every pundit chortling could Clinton not be noticing?

The president -- in Europe where the headlines were only somewhat subdued -- told the traveling White House press corps the Paula Jones case is not affecting the way he's doing his job. Is he kidding?

White House officials insist that's the way it is. As the story broke Tuesday, the president was in Paris signing a treaty with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and NATO leaders. Wednesday in the Hague, he helped celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild post-World War II Europe. Thursday in London, Clinton met with new British Prime Minister Tony Blair who's supposed to have Clinton's political instincts without his extra-curricular distractions.

"I don't know how more intent you can be," said one senior White House official. "Nobody's been sitting here throwing over the schedule."

"This White House is used to crisis," another official acknowledged.

That it is. Whitewater. Gennifer Flowers. John Huang. Webster Hubbell. The Lincoln Bedroom. Paula Jones.

Does any of it matter?

"Would we prefer it (the court ruling) didn't happen? Yes," a seniorWhite House official said. But he also suggested "it's not what captures the imagination of the viewers."

"We continually find the public responds when he does what he was elected to do," says another, noting the European trip to widen NATO membership and the pending balanced budget agreement with Congress.

The argument carries some weight. Clinton weathered intense questioning of his character to get elected in the first place. By the time he was re-elected, the voting public had discounted the allegations of ethical lapses and character flaws.

He's not running any more. Or is he? What about his legacy?

Presidential aides say the press is more worried about the Clinton legacy than he is. One adviser wishfully deflected the question saying, "It's America's legacy, not his."

"We do not check in three times a day on how the legacy is doing," says another aide.

The "legacy" may be a media fixation precipitated by the second Clinton term. There's nothing else to run for except history's judgment.

Clinton's, so far, is a jumble. As a campaigner, he's hard to beat. Republicans will tell you that. Comeback after comeback, Clinton outlasted wobblier or more plodding opponents. Maybe he was lucky to have drawn two weakened Republican contestants.

As a tactician, he's proven an able compromiser. Welfare reform. The balanced budget agreement. (We'll judge later just how real it is.) But were these forward-looking successes or rear-guard measures to stave off what might have been worse?

As a strategist, he's harder to figure out. Grand schemes -- 1993's health care reform -- have been a debacle. Reinventing government has withered to a punchless plan-a-day tonic. Clinton's a juggler with 100 balls in the air and no certainty of catching any.

And it could all be overshadowed by a day in court with its allegations of sexual misbehavior and hints of an unmistakable genital identification. We know about the underwear. Do we want to know more?

The Supreme Court did not say that has to happen while Clinton is still in office. It did say a sitting president has no claim to defer litigation until he's safely out of office. Smart lawyers, and the president's certainly got them, can still stretch this out for a seeming eternity. Paula Jones' lawyers say they could be in court in 12 to 14 months.

This could all be preempted by an out of court settlement. But even if the process stretches beyond January of 2001 when Clinton's successor is sworn in (does this make Al Gore nervous?), the statute of limitations on presidential legacies does not expire with the term in office. Neither the media nor the presidential corps of advisers should mistake that.

Moreover, this talk of legacy is much misplaced. A legacy is merely what is handed on. Richard Nixon left Gerald Ford a legacy with which Ford had to deal. Clinton's successor won't have to deal with Paula Jones, just whatever tarnish the case has left on the Oval Office.

Historians, a more patient breed than journalists or politicians, will make the final judgment as to how much this matters.

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