Dented Presidency?

Many commentators and academic specialists on the US presidency are darkly repeating earlier warnings about a "reduced presidency" (a.k.a. a devalued, damaged, or shrunken presidency).

Arguments in vogue last summer have popped up again in media commentary. Among the gloomy warnings:

*The supreme court has opened the door to any zealot who can find a credible reason to drag a sitting president into court.

*Voters, even many who didn't want Bill Clinton removed, have lost respect for the presidency.

*Either presidential safety or confidentiality will be lost because of grand jury vulnerability. Secret Service guards, subject to subpoena, will be kept away from inner councils of the president. And official legal advisers will forfeit confidentiality.

*The prospect of media hounding will drive qualified candidates away from seeking the presidency.

There's a classic fallacy in these forecasts. They project today's political realities immutably into the future. To see just how suspect this is, recall some past "certainties":

Inexperienced Harry Truman couldn't possibly shine in the giant shadow cast by Roosevelt. Lyndon Johnson's landslide vote and mastery of Congress would carry him to a second full term. Richard Nixon created a lasting "imperial presidency." Ronald Reagan would preside over a continuing dismal economy.

With those examples in mind, revisit the "diminished presidency" arguments noted above.

*The Supreme Court, while ostensibly upholding precedent, is unlikely to allow a spate of plaintiffs to commandeer Oval Office time. The court will likely refine its outlook - creating a high threshhold against frivolous or time-consuming legal actions.

*Public support for the presidency has fluctuated throughout US history. It tends to bounce back after a low period. It certainly will respond to the three Cs - character, capability, and charisma - in future White House occupants. It will also respond in times of perceived national peril.

*Presidents will use personal lawyers, clad in attorney-client privilege, for personal problems. The courts are not likely to compel Secret Service guards to testify publicly on national security matters. So presidents need not slip their bodyguards unless planning hanky panky. The past year's crisis should deter that for quite a while.

*All of the above should help to reassure future candidates that they and their families will not be hectored beyond what any political leader normally expects. That's especially true of skilled candidates with demonstrably ethical and moral records.

Campaign financing needs reform. But, in addition, primary election voters must discover, encourage, and choose such ethical candidates. If they do so, they will hammer out any perceived dents in the presidency itself.

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