WHEN BILL CLINTON CONTEMPLATES THE scandals that could ruin 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 filed 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.
If Clinton did what Jones alleges, how could he have been so reckless? He would not have been the first politician to use his aides to summon women for sex. Clinton's hero, JFK, comes to mind. A powerful politician, especially one on a hot streak like Clinton, can succumb to delusions of grandeur. In 1991 Bill Clinton could well have fancied himself as the Lord of Little Rock, heading for the White House. At the time, he could not have contemplated the price he would later pay. The damage is not so much legal or even political; voters seem to have forgiven Clinton his sexual foibles. The Paula Jones case will not provoke impeachment proceedings, and people who say the matter exposes Clinton as a fraud on family values have already made up their minds. The real cost to Clinton may be sheer embarrassment--to him and to his family.
Today, Paula Jones, 30, lives in semi-seclusion in California with her husband, Steve Jones, an airline-reservations clerk. She is home raising her 4-year-old son Madison and 4-month-old baby Preston. She says she will not attend the Supreme Court arguments on Jan. 13 because of the expected media crush. In a brief interview with NEWSWEEK last week, she seemed overwhelmed by what she has wrought. "I'm very anxious and nervous. It's so scary," she says. Nevertheless, she showed no signs of backing down. "Nobody has wanted to hear the truth," she says.
The story of her lawsuit began with wounded pride. Her desire to clear her name--or make trouble, depending on whom you believe--began with an article by David Brock in the conservative American Spectator in late December 1993. In the story, several Arkansas state troopers claimed that they had provided Governor Clinton with women on numerous occasions. One of the meetings was with a "Paula" at the Excelsior Hotel in downtown Little Rock in 1991. As she left the governor's hotel room, "Paula" allegedly told the state trooper that she was willing to be Clinton's "regular girlfriend," if he wanted.
Paula Jones strongly suspected that the Spectator's "Paula" was she. Humiliated and angry, she called a small-time Little Rock lawyer named Daniel Traylor, who after a few weeks contacted Cliff Jackson, a political activist well known in Arkansas as a Clinton enemy. Jackson recommended that Jones tell her story at a forum that would attract reporters--a press conference held by the state troopers cited in the American Spectator story. Set up to promote a "Troopergate Whistleblowers Fund," the event was sponsored by the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington on Feb. 11, 1994.
It was a fiasco. Jones, who in fact has no strong political leanings, looked like a right-wing tool. She spoke briefly and haltingly, claiming that Clinton had asked her for a "type of sex." The press mostly ignored her or scoffed at her story. Reporters were deeply ambivalent in their response to the latest round of sex stories about Clinton. They were fascinated by Troopergate and gossiped about it, but they were still cringing over their coverage of the spectacle of Gennifer Flowers's touting her alleged "love tapes" with Clinton on the eve of the New Hampshire primary in 1992. Clinton had survived the Flowers affair, and the press had backed off. Whitewater was just starting to grab headlines in the winter of 1994, and money, not sex, seemed to be a more appropriate target of the media's investigative zeal. Besides, sex scandals are hard to prove. Generally speaking, there are only two possible witnesses to what really happened, and usually neither one will go on the record.
Jones was talking to one reporter, however. Advised by Cliff Jackson to tell her story to a reputable newspaper, she agreed to meet with Michael Isikoff, then of The Washington Post. (Isikoff, who contributed to this story, now works for NEWSWEEK, which, like the newspaper, is owned by The Washington Post Company.) In a three-hour interview, Jones recounted her encounter with Clinton in graphic detail. She told Isikoff that she had first noticed Governor Clinton looking at her as she manned a desk at the Governor's Quality Management Conference in Little Rock that May of 1991. At the time, Jones, 24, earned $6.35 an hour in a clerical job with a state agency, the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission. At about 2:30 p.m., she claims a state trooper, Danny Ferguson, asked if she would accompany him to the governor's suite. She asked Ferguson what Clinton wanted, and the trooper replied, "It's OK, we do this all the time for the governor." Jones hesitated, but she went, she said, because she hoped the governor would give her a job. (Ferguson later confirmed that he escorted Jones to Clinton's room.) Jones says she entered the suite and found herself alone with Clinton. She claims that the governor began by saying that he was a good friend of Jones's boss, Dave Harrington. Clinton complimented her hair and her "curves," then began slipping his hands up her legs, pulling her close to "nibble" her neck. "I will never forget the look on his face," said Jones. "His face was just red, beet red." Jones said she exclaimed, "What are you doing?" and pushed away from him. Clinton then walked over to the sofa. According to Jones, as he sat down, he lowered his trousers. "Kiss it," he said. Horrified, Jones said she jumped up and announced, "Look, I'm not that kind of girl." Clinton said, "Well, I don't want to make you do anything you don't want to do." Clinton pulled up his pants. He told her to keep quiet about the encounter.
During the course of this interview and several later conversations, Isikoff found Jones to be unsophisticated and guileless. She was described by some friends as flirtatious. After the death of her father, a strict Nazarene preacher in rural Arkansas, in 1985, she was apparently no stranger to honky-tonks. But Isikoff was unable to catch her in any lies.
Jones's story was supported by other friends and family members interviewed by Isikoff. Two in particular stood out as credible witnesses. They had nothing to gain and something to lose by speaking on the record, and they said they had talked to Jones in "real time"--right after she emerged from Clinton's hotel room. Pamela Blackard had been sitting with Jones at the registration desk in the hotel lobby, when she noticed Clinton "staring intently" at Paula; and Blackard was there when the state trooper approached with his request. About 10 minutes later, Jones returned "shaking," Blackard said. She told Blackard, in detail, about Clinton's unwelcome overtures, but urged her not to tell anyone. "We were both kind of scared. I thought I could lose my job," said Blackard, who worked with Paula for the state. "She thought she could lose her job." Later that afternoon, Jones showed up unexpectedly at the Little Rock office of a friend, Debra Ballentine. As Jones recounted her tale, including the request for oral sex, "she was breathing really hard, she was very upset," said Ballentine. "She said he was putting his hands on her legs and he was trying to put his hands up her dress." Ballentine told Jones to "tell someone." She couldn't, she said. She was afraid she'd lose her job, and she didn't want her husband to find out.
Three family members told Isikoff that Jones had come to them about the incident. Lydia Cathey, her older sister, said that Jones had been in tears because "she didn't know what to do." Only Jones's other sister, Charlotte Brown, disputed that she was upset. Jones's tone, said Brown, was "matter of fact."
After more reporting proved that Clinton had been milling about the hotel lobby at the time he allegedly sent the trooper after Jones, Isikoff thought that he had enough for a story. His editors at the Post, however, were understandably cautious. They wanted to be absolutely sure of the facts before they ran such a sensational article. They ordered Isikoff to do more reporting to see whether Clinton had a pattern of harassing women. Isikoff was able to find some women who claimed that Clinton had made unwanted advances (one described the governor's calling her in the middle of the night as she lay in bed with her husband), though none offered anything like Jones's lurid encounter. Additional reporters were assigned to the story, which went through numerous drafts and more checking over the next two months.
As the Post editors worked on the story, the statute of limitations was running out. After May 8, Jones would be unable to file a suit against Clinton. At the last minute, she found a couple of self-described "country lawyers" in Washington's Virginia suburbs, Gilbert Davis and Joseph Cammarata, who were willing to represent her. Clinton, too, found a lawyer to defend him--Robert Bennett, a $475-an-hour Beltway superlawyer known for his ability to handle the press.
In retrospect, hiring Bennett may have been at least a tactical mistake. Though he is a topnotch lawyer, especially in front of the camera, hiring him had a perverse effect: it helped persuade the Post to run Isikoff's piece. If Paula Jones has no case, the Post editors figured, how come Clinton needs a hired gun like Bennett?
The story, which appeared on May 3, was long but carefully hedged and balanced with denials. Blackard and Ballentine were both quoted, but not prominently, and the average reader may have missed the import of their testimony. In any case, the story was quickly overrun by the famous White House spin machine.
A couple of lawyers from Bennett's office were dispatched to Little Rock to find dirt on Jones. Her brother-in-law Mark Brown, Charlotte's husband, was happy to help. He said that Jones liked to pick up men in bars and that there were nude photos of her floating around. (Some photos, taken by an old boyfriend, later appeared in Penthouse over Jones's objections.) That afternoon, Brown and Jones's sister went on local TV and portrayed Jones as a slut and gold digger. Brown was recovering from brain surgery at the time. Later, he changed his story to say that he believed Jones "absolutely."
Bennett, like any good lawyer, was eager to make the case just go away. He called Davis and Cammarata and told them that he had spoken at length with the president, who denied that anything had happened with Jones. He added, "I understand there are some nude photos of her."
But Jones's lawyers had just extracted a new detail from their client. The day before, in response to questions from Cammarata, Jones had described a "distinguishing characteristic" on the president's private parts. Davis immediately sought to use it to his advantage. "Well," Davis told Bennett, "might it affect your thinking if I told you that Ms. Jones can identify certain distinguishing characteristics in the president's genital area?" As Davis recalled, Bennett paused and then said, "Well, I guess this is not your usual personal-injury case." Davis thought he had shaken Bennett. Actually, Bennett was very skeptical of the "certain distinguishing characteristics." A similar ploy had been used in a sexual-harassment claim against pop star Michael Jackson. But Bennett understood the importance of trying to settle the case before it got into the courts.
So a series of bizarre secret negotiations began that first week in May. On one end of the phone in Little Rock were Davis and Cammarata, who were closeted with Jones and her husband, while a raucous media circus assembled on the courthouse steps down the street. At the other end was Bennett--who was sitting in the office of presidential adviser George Stephanopoulos, right off the Oval Office. At least once, the president himself wandered in.
Bennett faxed down a proposed statement. In it, the president declared that he had "no recollection" of meeting Jones "in a room," but he added, "I do not challenge her claim that we met there." The president went on to say that Jones "did not engage in any improper or sexual conduct. I regret any untrue assertions that may have been made about her..." Bennett had built in some lawyerly wriggle room. The statement refers to "a" room, not "the" hotel room. Clinton meets lots of people in hotel rooms; he might have met her. He couldn't say. Still, the statement had gone pretty far to satisfy Jones, who was not at this point demanding any money--only an apology.
In Little Rock, the lawyers and Jones were happily surprised. Davis asked Bennett if he had "checked with your client." According to Davis, Bennett answered, "Yes, I did, and as a matter of fact he is in the room and he'll agree to the language." Davis cupped his hand over the phone and told the others, "He's in the room." At this point, says Cammarata, "we all looked at each other and I thought, "My God, we're negotiating with the president of the United States'." Cammarata looked directly at Jones, who seemed awed. She and her lawyers agreed to put off the suit for at least another day.
The good will was soon shattered. At the White House, someone leaked that Jones had delayed the suit because she knew she had no case and because her family was opposed. As Jones and her lawyers watched this report that evening on CNN, they were "shocked" and "furious," says Davis. They didn't blame Bennett, but they felt betrayed by the White House. They were also suspicious of the timing of the anti-Paula remarks by Jones's sister and brother-in-law. Had Clinton's lawyers put them up to it?
The negotiations were effectively over. Davis faxed a handwritten note to the White House blaming the leaks for the breakdown. Jones's lawyers thought they had come within an inch of a settlement. Bennett, who refused to comment for this story, believed that a settlement was close, though not a sure bet. The president had never signed off on a final statement, and he was likely to balk at any explicit admission of his own wrongdoing. Still, Bennett felt that real progress was being made until the White House spin stopped the talks.
Now the efforts to discredit Jones became intense. Bennett produced Jones's original fee agreement with Daniel Traylor, the Little Rock lawyer she had first retained. In it, she had agreed to share in the profits from book deals and movie rights. Bennett also found an intermediary, an old acquaintance of Clinton's, whom Traylor had unsuccessfully asked to approach the White House for a money settlement. Jones, who has passed a lie-detector test arranged by her lawyers, now says she has no interest in profiting from the case; she has promised to give any money she wins to charity. She has turned down the usual tabloid deals, though she made $50,000 for endorsing a brand of jeans, half of which went to her lawyers.
The White House campaign was effective. "Drag a hundred dollars through a trailer park and there's no telling what you'll find," said James Carville, Clinton's colorful consultant. Even Gennifer Flowers chimed in. "It's not like Bill to pull down his pants," she declared to the New York Daily News. "He simply wouldn't have done it." The press was bemused and scornful, falling for the Clintonite spin. (NEWSWEEK'S Evan Thomas, the author of this piece, said on a Washington talk show that Jones was just "some sleazy woman with big hair coming out of the trailer parks.") This elitist attitude was widely shared by the establishment press.
In the public mind, Jones's story was by and large relegated to the right-wing fringes. In some ways, the White House spinners had won. But in the long run, they may have done their boss more harm than good. True, Bennett has been able to delay the case. When the Supreme Court agreed to review the question of presidential immunity from civil suits, the practical effect was to put the case on ice until after the November elections. Privately, Bennett said just doing this was, in his eyes, "victory." Even if the Supreme Court decides to let the case go forward, Bennett can continue to stall with various motions to dismiss. But he cannot delay pretrial discovery for the next four years.
Meanwhile, the press is waking up. The catalyst was the article that appeared in The American Lawyer by Taylor, a former legal correspondent for The New York Times. Taylor wrote that he, too, had initially dismissed Paula Jones as a gold digger. But after interviewing her girlfriends Blackard and Ballentine, he changed his mind. The evidence against Clinton was actually pretty strong--much stronger, he pointed out, than Anita Hill's charges against Clarence Thomas during the justice's confirmation hearings in 1991. Taylor accused the press of hypocrisy and class bias--of believing Hill, a Yale Law grad and a feminist, and not Jones with her big hair. Taylor's article was widely read in newsrooms and editors' offices, including those at NEWSWEEK.
No one will probably ever know for sure what went on in the room at the Excelsior Hotel on that May day in 1991. But judg-ing from the available testimony, Clinton has a strong interest in not allowing a public inquisition to go forward. Depositions, even taken under court-ordered secrecy, have a way of leaking. The president's best bet may be to do what he failed to the day before the suit was filed: settle the case. It may require an apology, but the alternative seems worse.
PHOTO (COLOR): Should she be heard?
PHOTO (COLOR): Paula Jone's sexual-harassment suit against president Clinton heads to the Supreme Court next week. The constitutional issues are weighty. The impact on the president's future could be bigger.
PHOTO (COLOR): The accuser: Jones in California last week
PHOTO (COLOR): Family portrait: Jones poses with her son madison and her mother in 1994
PHOTO (COLOR): Early moves: At her initial press conference in '94--one sponsored by conservative activists--Jones was accompanied by her lawyer, Traylor, and her husband, Steve
PHOTO (COLOR): Supporting witness: Jones with Ballentine on a visit to Little Rock last October
PHOTO (COLOR): Private life: Jones near her Long Beach, Calif., home last week
THE LEGAL STAKES
HOW JONES'S HARASSMENT CASE AGAINST CLINTON MAY FARE IN COURT
HOW STRONG IS Paula Jones's case? In one important respect, it appears weaker than the typical sexual-harassment lawsuit. The complaint is based on a single episode, rather than a pattern of conduct over a long period of time. Moreover, Jones will have a hard time showing that her career suffered. Though she was afraid of losing her job, she did not. Should the case go to a jury, President Clinton's lawyers will be able to cast doubt on her motives. They will show that Jones signed an agreement with her first lawyer, Daniel Traylor, to share in any book or movie contracts. Portraying Jones as a gold digger could help Clinton beat the harasser rap.
But in another important respect, Jones's suit may actually be stronger than most such cases. Though limited to a single incident, Clinton's alleged conduct at the Excelsior Hotel was so raunchy that a jury could believe that Jones was subjected to a "hostile work environment," a key element in sexual-harassment cases. Jones, who is suing Clinton under the civil-rights laws, must also show that he was acting in some kind of official capacity. She can make a pretty good case by showing that she was a state employee working on the day of the incident at a state-government conference; that she was delivered to the hotel room by a state trooper serving in the governor's security detail, and that Clinton told her that he was a friend of her boss, a Clinton appointee.
Will the Supreme Court allow the case to go forward? Clinton's lawyers argue that he should be given "temporary immunity," that the matter should be delayed until after he leaves office. Advancing lofty arguments about the separation of powers and the president's constitutional obligations, Clinton's lawyers are arguing in effect that the president is too busy to be distracted by civil lawsuits. Allowing a president to be sued for acts committed before he became president would make the Oval Office a "magnet for litigation," his attorneys say. Paula Jones's lawyers, meanwhile, will argue that she cannot afford to wait to get a jury, since witnesses may die and memories fade.
There are no precise precedents for the Supreme Court to follow. In the closest case, Nixon v. Fitzgerald, the court ruled that a president couldn't be sued by a whistle-blower, but that was for his official actions, not his private acts. In the Jones case, court watchers predict that the justices will split the difference. They are unlikely to grant the president sweeping immunity. "The Constitution did not create a monarchy," declared a federal appeals court in ruling that the case should go forward. Still, the justices will try to find a way to keep the president from becoming personally distracted. One course would be to allow Jones's lawyers to take depositions to preserve evidence but to postpone trial until after he leaves office.