House Republicans, including Orange County Rep. Robert K. Dornan, and a coalition of Vietnam veterans lambasted President Clinton Wednesday for seeming to claim active-duty military status as a reason for putting off a pending sexual harassment lawsuit, a suggestion they said is "a slap in the face to the millions of men and women" in the armed forces.
Last week, Clinton's lawyer, Robert S. Bennett, asked the Supreme Court to rule the president is immune while in office from responding to lawsuits, including the harassment claim filed by Paula Corbin Jones.
By law, criminal defendants, bankrupted persons and active members of the armed forces can be freed temporarily from responding to civil suits, he argued. He cited the Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act of 1940 and said it freed service personnel from responding immediately to damage suits against them.
"President Clinton here thus seeks relief similar to that which he may be entitled as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and which is routinely available to service members under his command," Bennett told the justices.
Veterans groups seized on that statement and demanded Clinton retract the "ignoble suggestion" that he is a member of the armed forces.
"Under the Constitution, you are the civilian commander in chief. . . . You are not a person in the military service, nor have you ever been," said Reps. Bob Stump (R-Ariz.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and Dornan (R-Garden Grove), who chairs the House subcommittee on military personnel.
In an interview, Stump called the legal argument a gaffe that revives two allegations that have plagued Clinton: "draft dodging" and sexual harassment.
"It's incredibly stupid they have brought this argument up," Stump said. More than 160 Republicans signed the letter asking Clinton to retract the claim he is part of the armed forces.
Dornan, who refused additional comment, has long made Clinton's avoidance of military service a pet issue. Last year, Dornan was expelled from the House floor for 24 hours after he claimed Clinton had given "aid and comfort to the enemy" during the Vietnam War.
A White House official said the legal statement had been "blown out of proportion," but referred comment to Bennett.
His office issued a statement calling it nothing more than "a partisan effort to distort an argument" and said it had no plans to revise the appeal, which the justices are expected to act on in late June.
However, Bennett, in his statement, repeated the argument that the Soldiers' and Sailors' Relief Act "might also extend to Presidents as Commander-in-Chief, although we have not relied on it in this case." .
Legal experts agreed the 1940 law is precise in saying it applies only to "persons in the military service of the United States" who are "on active duty."
"There is no question the presidency is a civilian office. He is certainly not considered a member of the armed forces,' said Washington attorney Eugene Fidell, an expert on military law.
However, the controversial reference "is really a minor point made in passing. It was perhaps an inartful choice of words, but they were trying to make the point there is nothing extraordinary about a stay of litigation," Fidell said.
The veterans' leaders nonetheless called the legal reference an outrage.
"We were just blown away with that," said J. Thomas Burch Jr., chairman of the National Vietnam Veterans Coalition, who first called attention to the court appeal. "And frankly, we would like to blow [Clinton] away politically for doing it."
In one letter, Burch said the legal appeal "profoundly insulted" Vietnam era vets, because Clinton avoided service in that war.
"Bill Clinton was not prepared to carry the sword for his country, but has no hesitancy in using its shield if he can get away with it," Burch wrote.
In an interview, Burch said Clinton had previously damaged his credibility with Vietnam veterans when he decided to lift the trade embargo against Vietnam, contrary to a commitment he had made to veterans' groups. Burch said the administration's action removed a bargaining tool the veterans had relied on to get a full accounting of American soldiers still missing in action.
Dornan also has doggedly pressed for further accounting.