Damaged Bully Pulpit?

From the outset, we have been skeptical of arguments that the "institution of the presidency" has been seriously damaged by this year's battle over scandal and impeachment.

It hasn't.

Coming years will see the presidency - and individual presidents - operating as always within the historic cycle of ups and downs, gaining and losing power as they interact with a restlessly searching electorate.

Why have the dire forecasts of summer been so wrong? Why did President Clinton's backers and opponents, as well as kibitzing historians, so overestimate the damage to America's CEO and the bully pulpit?

First, take a look at the principal assertions made by various sides:

* President Clinton injured the institution by lying to the American people, his own staff, and a grand jury.

* The Supreme Court damaged the presidency by ruling that a legal case against a president about events prior to his taking office (the Paula Jones case) could proceed without awaiting departure from office.

* Independent counsel Kenneth Starr damaged it by handing Congress a bill of impeachment centered on a "private" sexual matter.

* Mr. Clinton and/or Mr. Starr's office created a bad precedent by refusing (Clinton) or demanding (Starr) grand jury appearances by the president's Secret Service guards.

* Ditto, grand jury testimony by the president's White House lawyers.

* All these actions divert attention from important official business.

There are other assertions. But these points, at least, deserve examination since they could bear on a future president's ability to lead the nation and the world.

Let's look at each.

Lying. Quickly disposed of. Were Ford and Carter hamstrung because of Nixon's deeds? Did Coolidge lose clout because of Harding's scandals? Did Andrew Johnson gain with Congress because of Lincoln's martyrdom? No, no, and no. If anything, voters mandate a pendulum swing away from a departing presidents' style when selecting a successor.

Legal jeopardy while in office. Possibly hazardous. Even presidents without pre-inauguration baggage might be subjected to nuisance suits. But, if so, lower courts and the Supreme Court would likely limit permissible actions, narrowing the types of matters that could be brought to trial during a term.

Independent counsels. Their mandate is almost certain to be sharply limited (or abolished) when the law comes up for renewal. Future presidents will (while memory is fresh, anyway) avoid immoral, high-risk behavior (one hopes through strength of character; failing that, through fear of history's judgment).

Weakened Secret Service. Much ado about little, because: (1) A president with no guilty secrets to hide won't shoo guards away from the Oval Office environs. (2) Courts won't allow summoning of guards to testify about overheard state secrets.

Official lawyer confidentiality. Future presidents will retain private legal help, as this president now has, for defense on personal matters. The courts were right to place taxpayer-funded lawyers under obligation to testify about the people's business.

Diversion of attention. By definition, this "injury" to the presidency is nontransferable. Succeeding presidencies don't inherit burdens such as Johnson's Vietnam, Nixon's Watergate, Reagan's Iran-contra, Clinton's Lewinsky. (Although each can, of course, create its own albatross.) In practice, an incoming president may benefit in public goodwill and moral influence by simply representing a change of guard.

Diversion of presidential attention to incessant fund-raising is another matter. The questionable Clinton version is the culmination of a long process - inflated by both parties - of bidding up the price of campaigning for, and holding onto, office. It's likely to tarnish the institution of the presidency further in future until the parties agree on more rational, legal ways to limit campaign financing.

To sum up: The American presidency is not likely to be diminished by events, however dire they seem, in any one administration. After a big political earthquake, pundits usually misjudge in "forever after" prose. Think how often Republicans or Democrats were declared flattened for a generation, only to return to power after an election cycle. Recall how the "imperial presidency" of Nixon grew upon the shattered remains of Johnson's huge mandate - only to shatter in turn.

The presidency may of course be weakened in future. But not by damage inherited from today. Thanks to a foresighted Constitution, Americans can always gain fresh executive leadership, if they're willing to push for it - and get out to vote for it.

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