DID he or didn't he? The most controversial lawsuit in the United States—Civil Action No. LR-C-94-290, the sexual harassment case of Paula Corbin Jones vs William Jefferson Clinton—is quickly occupying centrestage. Jones, a former state employee, alleges that Clinton summoned her to a hotel room in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1991, when he was still governor of Arkansas, and asked her for oral sex after kissing her and exposing his genitals.
Tawdry details of the alleged pants-dropping incident have been so well-publicised that, according to recent polls, nine out of 10 Americans recognise the name Paula Jones. The case is not only a staple of late-night TV talk shows and stand-up comics across the nation, but is also a preferred topic for political pundits.
After the Supreme Court ruled in May that Clinton's executive privilege could not stall the case until he leaves the White House, his legal team went to work in earnest. On July 3, his attorney Bob Bennett asked for dismissal of the case, denying the allegations. The motion is designed to put on a show of toughness to demonstrate a willingness to fight. The key sentence reads: "The president adamantly denies the false allegations advanced in the complaint."
Clearly, the president has decided to go on the offensive. Says analyst Fred Barnacle: "Since the Supreme Court sided with Jones, Clinton's tactic has been 'let's get it on'. His attorney and supporters are now telling one and all that they're itching for a fight. Of course, an outright dismissal would be even better for the president, and that's what Bennett seeks in his motion."
Failing dismissal, Bennett has called for moving on towards trial. However, many legal and political experts say that in reality a public trial would be disastrous and would diminish the president's authority, no matter what the outcome. (The next step in the legal process is Jones' response to the Clinton filing. If everything proceeds uninterrupted, a trial could actually get under way within a year.)
By seeking to have the sexual harassment suit either dismissed or brought to trial, Clinton has risked his credibility for the remainder of his term. According to legal and political advisors, his strategy is to seize the momentum in the case and shift pressure onto Paula Jones. Says a Clinton advisor: "They (Jones' attorneys) have got to start thinking about how their case is going to stand up and how their witnesses will do on the stand."
BUT Jones' lawyers say they have got Clinton where they have wanted him all along—to the point of defending himself in court. "We are ready to go," said Joseph Cammarata, Jones' co-counsel. "We're glad this case is finally moving forward." Clinton's legal team feels its primary strategic goal is the president's reputation. That can best be served by winning a dismissal, limiting the damage to Clinton of testimony by other alleged sexual partners or forcing a favourable settlement by pressuring Jones.
Besides asking for the case to be dismissed or moved to trial, the Clinton motion also seeks to limit the witnesses Jones can call to back her charges in order to block her efforts to gain evidence of the president's other alleged extramarital affairs. "They say they want to move forward, but only if they can limit anything damaging to them from coming out," said Cammarata. "It doesn't work that way. It is going to be relevant to this case whether he has done similar things in the past."
In the papers filed on July 3, Jones is accused of "thrusting herself into the public limelight" and "joining with longtime political opponents of the president who sought to discredit him and the presidency". Her goal, it is alleged, is to "derive economic benefit and simultaneously to harm the president politically". The judge has been urged to hold a conference soon to set a trial date and to limit statements Jones' lawyers can make on "core issues" surrounding what she said happened in the hotel room.
Clinton's lawyers hope to win at least a partial victory at a dismissal hearing, reshaping the case more to the president's advantage by paring off parts of Jones' suit that they say are legally unsound. Then, even if Arkansas US District Judge Susan Webber Wright refuses to dismiss the case entirely, Jones' legal team might feel that a win is a remote proposition and agree to a settlement that avoids embarrassment for the president.
If not, Clinton's legal team believes it has a good chance at a decisive courtroom win, which would lift a cloud off the presidency and contribute to salvaging his reputation in the history books. "Part one was to get past the (1996) election, part two becomes the president's place in history," says a close advisor to Clinton. That rules out a monetary settlement to Jones, he notes: "If we pay this woman a million dollars, it will hurt the president's place in history. Whatever statement we negotiate, it will appear to people it is an admission of guilt." Jones' reputation would be a "big time target" if the case moves into the courtroom stage, according to Clinton advisors. A glaring weakness in Jones' case, they believe, is her failure to file a valid complaint under sexual harassment laws. "What she alleges never happened, but if we admitted that it did, she would still not have a valid complaint," a Clinton advisor said. "All she could claim is assault, and there is a one-year statute of limitation on that in Arkansas."
Under the law, Jones is required to show she lost a promotion or a raise, was mistreated by superiors or otherwise had her career damaged in order to clinch her sexual harassment charge. Jones alleges that her supervisors at the Arkansas Industrial Development Corporation did indeed discriminate against her for refusing Clinton's advance. She says Clinton mentioned the name of her boss as a friend of his and told her to keep quiet about the encounter. For his part, Cammarata claims: "We have stated a legally sufficient complaint under the law. They have no shot of getting it dismissed."
As for the American people, the case has left a bad taste. Explains analyst Nancy Wall: "After the thrill of being the youngest president since his idol, John F. Kennedy, the honour of being the first Arkansas governor to become president, the smug satisfaction of being the first two-term Democrat president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the glory of being president of the world's most powerful nation during a historic era of global peace—it is America's shame that William Jefferson Clinton descends to this: did he or didn't he ask a stranger for oral sex? Regardless of what actually happened, the sorry fact remains that the president, and more painfully the presidency, of the United States has been indelibly stained by this sex scandal. " And that, perhaps, will be Paula Jones' victory.