THE JONES CASE IN CONTEXT
April 3, 1998
With the decision to throw out Paula Jones' case against the president, Bill Clinton appears to have weathered a political and legal storm. But what will the long-term impact be? Following a debate with Mark Shields and Paul Gigot, Margaret Warner leads a round table discussion on the impact of the case on President Clinton and the presidency.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. For some additional perspective, let's add two NewsHour regulars to our discussion, presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, and joining them is historian Stephen Ambrose.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
April 3, 1998:
Shields & Gigot discuss the dismissal of the Jones case.
April 2, 1998:
A legal analysis of the Starr investigation after the Jones case dismissal.
April 2, 1998:
Dan Balz of The Washington Post reports on Judge Starr's investigation.
April 1, 1998:
A judge dismisses Paula Jones' case against the president.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the White House and legal issues
A special Online NewsHour Web site: Character Above All.
Washingtonpost.com's coverage of the crisis.
What is the impact on the Clinton administration.
Michael, what effect do you think this--the Jones case has had on this president?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, first of all, it's raised the noise level of some of the allegations of impropriety in his private life that have dogged him really for the last six years. But I think in a larger sense it really is going to depend on what Ken Starr really turns in and whether this is related to what was discovered about Monica Lewinsky. I think if Starr does come up with evidence that opens Clinton to really serious allegations that can lead to impeachment hearings, in a way the language of the last day or two--vindication--will seem a little bit hollow because that's what people will remember. I think the most promising thing for Bill Clinton is that there is a history of recent presidents who have had serious scandals in their second terms and have been able to emerge from them. Truman in his second term, mink coat scandal; Dwight Eisenhower's chief assistant, Sherman Adams, was accused of bribery; and perhaps most famously Ronald Reagan in 1987 was able to emerge from this very serious scandal--Iran-Contra--and have two of the most important years of his presidency during which the Cold War effectively ended.
MARGARET WARNER: Doris, what effect do you think this case has had and is going to have on Bill Clinton's next two and a half years, the last two and a half years of his presidency?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, it'll depend in part on what he does with this presumed vindication. You know, it's been a very tawdry time, and it's been very denigrating to him and to the presidency. I still think if he had to do it over again, he would have been better off settling with Paula Jones at the beginning and using these last few years to do something that he clearly wanted to do for the country. But that's long behind him. Now the question is: Can he say to himself, look, I'm more popular now than I've ever been before. This is not the way my pollsters would have told me to get my popularity, and instead decide I'm going to use that popularity; I'm not going to garner it anymore; I'm not going to look after it anymore; my whole life I've been doing that; I'm going to try and use it now to do some things in these last couple of years, maybe really stand behind the Democrats and really try to win that Congress in the November election, maybe stand for some large things, rather than the smaller programs that the pollsters have told ‘em is all the country will stand for, really talk about what he wants to do with race, deal with campaign finance right up front.
I know probably pollsters will tell him don't do this, don't rock the boat, but in a certain light the only real positive thing he can get out of this whole embarrassing scandal is to decide to damn the torpedoes, whatever that means, about popularity, use that popularity up, and know that he's only got 18 months left to really shape that legacy.
MARGARET WARNER: Stephen Ambrose, do you think that this case and then also its dismissal leaves Mr. Clinton equipped to do what Doris and Michael are talking about, which is somehow transcend all this and in the next two and a half years?
STEPHEN AMBROSE: No. I think that he and Ken Starr are locked in a death embrace and that we are going to be stuck with it two years ahead of us, are talking about what Bill Clinton did. We're not going to be able to concentrate on the future; we're going to be stuck with the past, with did he do this, did he do that, it depends on what Starr reveals, of course, as has been said, but this is going to be, it seems to me, very much like Nixon's second term, a history lesson, history examination, a research into the past, rather than leaping forward into a bright new future in the bridge into the 21st century and all of that stuff.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, Paul?
PAUL GIGOT: I tend to agree with Stephen Ambrose on that. I think the political wreckage of this Paula Jones case for the president is severe. His credibility, if you look at his personal favorable numbers, what they think of the president, people think of the president as a human being, as an admirable leader, they don't admire him. They don't try--they don't believe he's honest. Now, they think he's doing a good job. The poll numbers are good when it comes to the economy, when it comes to his general stewardship, but that difference affects his ability to do difficult things. And there's one other way in which this whole case affects his ability to take the kind of risks that Doris talked about, and that is his last defense, his best defense is a high approval rating. Second-term presidents, a lot of them will use that, as Doris suggested, spend the capital to try to do things on entitlement reform or something. He can't take the risk as long as this case hangs over him of gambling that high approval rating, of taking on different interest groups because if he does, and that goes down, the Democrats and Republicans might look at them and say now is the time to pounce.
MARK SHIELDS: I think two things: First of all, just in the factual category, Bill Clinton's personal ratings in terms of honesty and integrity are the same today as they were in 1992. They've never been high. He's never been a hero with the American people. They are the same in the Wall Street Journal poll today as they were in October of 1992, so he hasn't--he hasn't suffered. I agree that certainly esteem for him is down over the past 70 days, there's no question about it. People believe worse about him than they did then. But I don't think it affects the presidency. I think that's a mistake we make.
The impact of the case on the presidency.
MARGARET WARNER: You're talking about now as an institution.
MARK SHIELDS: As an institution. Remember Jimmy Carter, the Congress was muscularly assertive in the late 1970's, after Nixon, Ford, Carter, Ronald Reagan came in crying the country, the establishment said we can only have one six-year term, a president couldn't run for re-election; Ronald Reagan proved that the job worked; that he could do it; that it wasn't too big for one man. The same thing after Richard Nixon, we find in the next fellah what we're looking for. We found in Gerry Ford emotional health, emotional equilibrium, sort of a decency and a family life that we could identify with. Whoever the next president is we will find that in him if that or her--if that president is up to the job. That's all it is. The office is remarkable. The Congress is not assertive now. At 1995 it was, but this Congress right now is a pretty docile, tame tabby cat. It's no tiger.
MARGARET WARNER: No damage to the president? I was just turning to Michael, and then I'll get to you, Doris. No damage to the presidency as an institution, no change?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think the presidency has shrunken in the last six years, and one of the reasons obviously is the end of the Cold War. Also, presidents are seen in much more trivial terms. A Franklin Roosevelt or a Dwight Eisenhower did not have to have their private lives dissected and illuminated, even if their private lives might have been a little bit more resistant to this kind of scrutiny than Bill Clinton's, but the other thing is that Bill Clinton has suffered--Mark is absolutely right--since 1992 by the fact that he has not had the strength that most presidents get from the fact that there are role models. When you've got a little kid in Iowa whose parent says, I want you to be like the president, that gives the president a degree of authority. Bill Clinton has never had that as long as he's been president, and the result has been that he hasn't had the kind of power he otherwise might have had to do the kind of things that we're talking about. And the other thing is that he hasn't gotten the credit that he might have gotten for some of the good things that he has done. That's not something that's permanent. You might have someone come in in 2001 who's very different, who might have that kind of authority, and that can all change.
MARGARET WARNER: Doris, you--do you think there's been really no impact on the institution of the presidency from all of these salacious revelations, all this prying into the president's personal life?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, I have no doubt that it has reinforced the cynicism that we feel about leadership in general. We're in a troubling period right now where there's not a great engagement on the part of the citizenry with politics. It's almost like politics has become a spectator sport, and that's what allows people to say, oh, Bill Clinton has won, because Paula Jones lost, or Bill Clinton is up and Ken Starr is down. There's very little deep connection with the political system the way there was in the 60's, the way there was at the turn of the century, the way there was in the 30's. And to that extent I think it's reinforced the soap opera quality of our public life. I had a dream the other night that Ken Starr was investigating the Roosevelt unconventional relationships in the White House with Eleanor and Franklin side by side with Roosevelt's secretary, Missy LeHand, and Winston Churchill drinking all day long, and it was a terrifying dream, but it's not simply the press that's brought this on. It's the leaders we've had in there have not been able to live up, as Michael said, to that kind of authority model. So altogether, we've got a very disengaged society. And I think that's going to take a real leader to turn around.
MARGARET WARNER: Stephen Ambrose, do you think that disengaged society has been made even more so by what happened in this case, or is this something that's an ongoing trend, and this is just a blip in it?
STEPHEN AMBROSE: I think the society is disengaged in politics because politics just aren't very important right now. But the only thing I know for sure about the future, talking about the effect of this case and the Clinton presidency on the future of the presidency, the only thing I know for sure about the future is it's going to be different, and we're going to have a new president in 2001. And he or she is going to lead us in new directions, and none of us know what the crises or the lack of crises might be at that time. I don't think for a minute that this dismissal of this lawsuit or the bigger issue, Clinton and his behavior as president and before, is going to have an effect on the presidency of any permanency whatsoever.
Has the press overreached?
MARGARET WARNER: Michael, we keep hearing--I certainly hear from normal people not in the press, not in politics, that they have been disgusted by all of this, by the coverage, by the wallowing in all the details, and by the further coarsening of the dialogue, and I know we talked about coarsening of the dialogue before this happened, but--
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: We sure did.
MARGARET WARNER: Is this just going to get more and more so this way, or do you think--I mean, there are really three players in the political discourse here--the players, themselves--there's the media and there's the public--I mean, are we all just moving in this direction? Do you think there'll be a pulling back?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think it's all going to depend really on how this investigation ends. And although the president had a victory the other day, this investigation is not over, and we do not know whether this is something that's going to still get very serious. If two or three years from now we look back and see that Paula Jones, Lewinsky business turned out to be a diversion, it was not very serious, Bill Clinton did not do anything very bad, then I think people will say, what were we talking about here, why were we so enmeshed in something that was so trivial and tawdry? On the other hand, if this leads to serious impeachment hearings that do jeopardize his presidency, it's going to look extremely difficult. Take a look, Margaret, at the summer of 1973. Let's say that the hearings on Watergate in the Senate ended with only the testimony of John Dean making accusations against Nixon and there were no tapes, and Nixon stayed in office, Watergate would have been seen as a blip and also people might have said, Nixon was right in saying that there was a big left-wing conspiracy against him.
MARGARET WARNER: And that the press has overreached?
MARK SHIELDS: That the press had overreached. There's a major difference in the way we view our president. On election day 1992, George Bush told both Marlin Fitzwater, his press secretary, and Bob Teeter, his campaign manager, he was sure that the American people would not elect Bill Clinton. Why? Because Bill Clinton had been a draft avoider and a draft evader and George Bush had grown up at a time when the president was the commander-in-chief, the thumb on the nuclear trigger, who could affect every one of us. In 1941, Margaret, when Joe DiMaggio hit straight in 56 consecutive games, the New York Yankees played Cleveland in a night game in Cleveland's municipal stadium with 80,000 people. Franklin Roosevelt gave a 15-minute fireside chat. It was played over the loud speaker system. Eighty thousand people sat in their seats and listened attentively to the President of the United States. It is unthinkable--whether it's Bill Clinton or who it is--George W. Bush or Steve Forbes--that people are going to sit--and the president can't get on cable now. I mean, it's--I mean, forget it--pop up videos are going to supplant the president--he really is a less commanding, a less compelling figure, and made so certainly by the terms of the debate.
MARGARET WARNER: Yes, you're trying to get in here.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, it seems to me that there's some truth to the fact that the fragmentation of the media makes it much harder for any leader to command our attention. The state of the union messages--except this last one, which had a little sex into it, have been decreasing in attendance listening--the convention speeches don't have that same hold--but nonetheless, in my optimistic moments, what I think is that this whole debate may make us figure out a better standard for what part of the private lives of our public figures really matter, make it relevant to their leadership. To go back 20 years in their old lives in some affair they had 20 years ago is just idiotic. It really would have taken Roosevelt away; it would have taken Eisenhower away, and maybe the public is going to figure out a better balance with the media, but I don't know if I trust my optimism. The Red Sox have won two games. Now I think they'll win 160 more.
MARGARET WARNER: Stephen Ambrose, do you--
STEPHEN AMBROSE: If I could just--
MARGARET WARNER: Yes, please.
STEPHEN AMBROSE: --on that one--I think it's just dreadful what has happened to this country and the point that we've gotten to. And I've got 12-year-old grandchildren, and I can't imagine what to tell them about what's on the evening news. Now, when I was a kid, we were--everybody knows, God created man with a penis and a brain and gave him only enough blood to run one at a time. And that's why we used to have dormitories that separated the boys and the girls, and we had chaperones at the dances, and all that is apparently gone now, and it's apparently all right to go grope if you stop when the woman says no, or if she says yes, it's all right to give her favors and privileges and benefits afterwards. And I just want to say for myself, I just think it's dreadful. And I do think it matters what a president's character is, and I think it mattered that Jack Kennedy had all those different girls all the time. I think it's just sick when that sort of thing happens, and I think it hurts us all. But the American people are obviously ready to cut a great deal of slack on this sex business in a way that they wouldn't on breaking into your competitor's office or tapping your rival's telephone line.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you, Stephen Ambrose, and Doris, and Paul, Mark and Michael.