Ruling could reduce confidence in Clinton

President Clinton’s approval numbers remained strong and steady last week despite the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision to let Paula Corbin Jones pursue the sexual harassment suit she filed against him three years ago. The deluge of coverage surrounding the ruling, however, did vastly overshadow his trip to Europe. The administration had hoped Clinton’s participation in 50th anniversary celebrations of the Marshall Plan would bolster public support for U.S. involvement abroad and fortify his 60 percent popularity rating.
But both the timing of the ruling and the court’s decision caught the administration off guard. Instead of images of a visionary international leader, audiences throughout the world have been bombarded with crass stories and vulgar jokes charging Clinton with lewd behavior that, if true, is an embarrassment to his family and the nation. Jones, a former government worker at the Arkansas Statehouse, claims Clinton made unwanted sexual advances to her in a Little Rock hotel room in 1991 when he was governor of the state. She says the incident violated her civil rights and that she was subsequently denied promotions for resisting his advances.
The president has repeatedly denied the charges and says he shouldn’t have to defend himself until the end of his term. Clinton’s lawyers argued that sitting presidents should have legal immunity from allegations involving their personal conduct. But the court firmly rejected that contention, reaffirming the constitutional tenet that no American citizen, including an incumbent president, is above the law. The ruling will certainly have a bruising political effect on the president. While Clinton has never scored particularly high on the public’s integrity scale, the humiliating questions he will have to answer could raise questions about his capacity to sustain the moral authority historically accorded the presidency.
In his campaign for re-election last year, the president successfully wrangled the family values banner from his Republican challenger. Many Americans preferred Clinton’s economic agenda over Bob Dole’s because it acknowledged that fiscal responsibility requires watching out for the nation’s poor, disabled and elderly citizens. But the legitimacy accorded Jones’ allegation in recent press reports, on top of continuing investigations into Clinton’s fund-raising tactics, have rendered him vulnerable to charges that his politics are hypocritical and morally vacuous.
Clinton’s defenders argue that his personal life should not serve as an evaluative measure of his capacity to perform presidential duties. But moral judgment isn’t so neatly compartmentalized into private and public domains. Such a basic moral principle as respecting the dignity of others is typically expected in peoples’ personal and professional lives. The trial will present Americans with an historic opportunity to assess whether they believe their president is as beholden to common moral standards as he is to the law. In so much that a nation’s moral integrity is principally comprised of its citizens’ sense of right and wrong, the world will surely be attentive to the nature of the public’s response.