Feb. 5, 1998
Vol. 17, No. 9

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    Media attention opportunity for faculty to share expertise

    University faculty members often have the opportunity to share their expertise through the media on a wide range of topics, from the origins of the Universe to the evolution of dinosaurs to the languages of ancient civilizations. In the past few weeks, much media attention has focused on the investigation of alleged improprieties in the White House.

    As with other topics, the interest has provided numerous occasions for University faculty members to analyze and comment on related issues, such as the role of special prosecutors and the nuances of and correlations between public and private behavior and morality. They have shared their thoughts with the public in media ranging from CNN and "ABC News" to The New York Times and The Washington Post to Time magazine and National Public Radio.

    David Strauss, the Harry N. Wyatt Professor in the Law School, assisted (with Provost Geoffrey Stone) in representing Clinton in the Paula Jones case before the U.S. Supreme Court last year. The current onslaught of attention to the Monica Lewinsky issue, Strauss says, is an example of what he and others then argued in the Jones case: that such a case could severely hamper a president in fulfilling presidential duties.

    "The chickens have come home to roost," Strauss said in a Washington Post article. "Any private lawsuit against the president was bound to become much more than a private case."

    Interest in the legal aspects of the allegations often focuses upon the Independent Counsel Act, under which independent counsel Kenneth Starr is investigating actions by President Clinton and others in his administration.

    In 1987, Strauss filed a brief in the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Edward Levi, the Glen A. Lloyd Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Law School, and two other former U.S. Attorneys General, arguing -- in a case in which a Republican official was under investigation -- that the Independent Counsel Act is unconstitutional, and Strauss says his arguments in that case have now been vindicated as well.

    "The problem with the Independent Counsel Act is that it uses the criminal justice system to deal with issues that are actually political," he said on WTTW-TV's "Chicago Tonight." "The way the independent counsel is set up, it's almost certain to lead to abuses -- no matter how conscientious and honorable the particular independent counsel is."

    Cass Sunstein, the Karl N. Llwellyn Distinguished Service Professor in the Law School and an expert on constitutional law and on the presidency, has written frequently about the 1978 act establishing the independent counsel. He has been quoted in Time and on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," as well as in other media, calling the Independent Counsel Act a dramatic failure that should be repealed.

    "Kenneth Starr was appointed to investigate possible illegality in connection with the Whitewater affair in Arkansas," Sunstein wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed. "Nearly four years and 30 million taxpayer dollars later, with his investigation badly flagging, Starr has authorized and obtained tape recordings of private conversations with a former White House aide. People on fishing expeditions sometimes catch fish."

    A special prosecutor, focusing on one individual, is a failure of sorts if he doesn't find that person guilty of some wrongdoing, Sunstein writes. "As the last days have shown so well, the Independent Counsel Act imposes terrible incentives on many others as well. It is a principal contributor to the tabloid mentality -- the race to circulate sensational stories and accusations as 'news' whether or not they are true."

    Dan Kahan, Professor in the Law School and an expert in constitutional law, agrees that the controversy over Monica Lewinsky demonstrates that the Independent Counsel Act allows prosecutors too much leeway in interpreting the law.

    "What does Monica Lewinsky have to do with Whitewater?" Kahan asks. In an interview on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition," Kahan said, "By all appearances, we have the independent prosecutor creating his own jurisdiction in the case. There really is no intrinsic connection between Whitewater and the Paula Jones case. So it's the independent prosecutor who's making the connection himself."

    Looking at the inquiry from a sociological aspect, Edward Laumann, the George Herbert Mead Distinguished Service Professor and Chairman of Sociology, says that regardless of whether the allegations against Clinton are true, "it's not surprising at all" when high-ranking politicians have affairs. "They've been selected for it," he told the Chicago Tribune.

    Laumann, who with his colleagues conducted the 1992 National Health and Social Life Survey, explains that some of the social skills useful to reaching high elective office are also seen in people with multiple sex partners. The 1992 National Health and Social Life Survey, a detailed examination of sexual behavior in the U.S., found that people with multiple sex partners and a high interest in sex tended to have robust health and high social competence -- qualities also shared by many successful politicians.

    An expert on social and political ethics, Jean Bethke Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor in the Divinity School, offers the view that a public official is not accorded the same freedom as a private citizen to engage in private affairs.

    Elshtain, who has spoken on the topic on WTTW-TV's "Chicago Tonight," wrote in an op-ed in Newsday, "When a president has an affair in the manner that this president is alleged to have done, it implicates all sorts of other people. So the upshot may well be that a president cannot have a truly 'private' affair -- certainly not if the assignations take place in his residence, our reigning symbol of the highest office and home to the chief law enforcement official in the land." Private acts by politicians inevitably have ramifications for other people, she asserts, and those in the public eye should modify their behavior accordingly.

    To read more of the University of Chicago in the news, see www-news.uchicago.edu.