Clinton V. Paula Jones

By Thomas, Evan; Klaidman, Daniel | Newsweek, January 13, 1997 | Go to article overview

Clinton V. Paula Jones


Thomas, Evan, Klaidman, Daniel, Newsweek


Her sexual-harassment suit is going to the Supreme Court next week. The history of the case--and what it could mean for the president's future.

WHEN BILL CLINTON CONTEMPLATES THE scandals that could rain his second term, what worries him most is not the vast machinery of the special prosecutor investigating Whitewater or the potential for endless congressional hearings over shady contributions to his presidential campaign. His real concern, say his friends, is the sexual-harassment suit fried against him by Paula Jones. Legally, most experts agree, the case has some holes. But it still has the potential to make Clinton's life hellish in the months and years ahead. Next week the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case of William Jefferson Clinton v. Paula Corbin Jones. In one light, the case is just another skirmish in the gender wars of the 1990s. In dry legal terms, Jones is seeking $700,000 in damages against Clinton for defaming her and violating her civil rights. But Clinton v. Jones poses some weighty constitutional issues, including the basic question of whether the president can stand above the law. Clinton's lawyers will argue that the president should be immune from Jones's suit until after he leaves office--lest other presidents be made magnets for shakedown suits. But there is a good chance that the justices will let the case go forward, if not all the way to trial, then at least to the "discovery" stage (page 28). If so, Clinton will be asked, under oath, some extremely uncomfortable questions about his actions on the afternoon of May 8, 1991, such as: did he, as Paula Jones, then an Arkansas state employee, alleges, expose himself to her and request oral sex? Did Clinton make a regular practice of using state troopers to procure women for sexual favors? His long-rumored history as an alleged womanizer will be open to cross-examination. The president's legal defense in the Jones case, which has already cost $1.5 million, will continue to consume much of his time and emotional energy.

Paula Jones is a familiar-enough name. She has been on the cover of People and the butt of a lot of smirky late-night humor. According to polls, at least nine out of 10 people know who she is. The same polls, however, show that most voters don't believe her story. In media accounts, she tends to be portrayed as a trailer-park floozy digging for money and celebrity.

Americans who dismiss Paula Jones as a tawdry sideshow may be in for a surprise. Her case is not weak enough to be simply or quickly thrown out of the courts. There is believable evidence that Jones was summoned to the then Governor Clinton's hotel room, that she met alone with him and that when she emerged she quickly told several people that she had been humiliated by Clinton's sexual overtures-and recounted virtually all the details she would later spell out in her legal complaint.

Arguably, the main reason more people don't take her story seriously is that the mainstream media have been skillfully spun by the White House and Clinton's lawyers. By playing on the class and partisan prejudices of reporters, as well as their squeamishness and ambivalence about printing stories about the sex lives of politicians, Clinton's operatives have done a brilliant job of discrediting Paula Jones and her case.

But spin can turn against the best of politicians. A history of the case, as reconstructed by NEWSWEEK from interviews with the main players--the White House refused to comment--shows that Clinton's handlers ruined a real chance to make the case go away before it was filed in May 1994. The principal reason settlement talks broke down was that Jones and her family thought that they were being smeared by leaks from the White House. The mainstream press is beginning to give more credence to Jones's story, in large part because of an influential article by Stuart Taylor in the November edition of The American Lawyer. Taylor accused the press of underreporting the Jones story because of a cultural double standard that let off liberal figures like Clinton more easily than conservatives like Clarence Thomas. …

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