When Paula Jones claimed that Bill Clinton had made sexual advances to her in an Arkansas hotel room, the Washington press dismissed her as `white trash'. But, despite the official denials, it now appears that she poses the most serious threat yet to face the Clinton presidency. More than that, it seems that the President and Paula Jones really do have a great deal in common
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When Paula Jones popped up three years ago - to accuse Bill Clinton of sexually exposing himself to her in an Arkansas hotel room - the Washington establishment closed ranks around the President, dismissing her as a low-life slut. Egged on by the White House, the mainstream media described her variously as sleazy, vulgar, gold-digging "white trash". Quickly, she became categorised in the popular imagination as that most disdained of outcasts in the Land of Opportunity: a "loser".

Paula Jones's tormentors failed to observe one important detail, however. If she was white trash, then so was Bill Clinton. If you were going to distrust her because of her class background then you should distrust the President too.

The woman whose pending sexual-harassment lawsuit imperils Clinton's presidency more than Whitewater, Travelgate, Indogate, Chinagate and Filegate combined could have been his cousin or next-door neighbour. Both were brought up in poverty in rural Arkansas: he in the town of Hope (pop 9,000), she in Lonoke (pop 4,000). Clinton's stepfather used to beat him, as well as his mother; Jones's mother would regularly "whup" her and her two sisters. Clinton's grandmother, who brought him up as a small child, was a strict, God-fearing Southerner; Jones's parents were sullen Bible-bashers who taught their children to shun television, the movies and the sins of the flesh.

And, like other poor children in Arkansas, they both hero-worshipped Elvis Presley, identifying him as the expression of their common longing to escape the asphyxia of the small-town South. And escape they did, though neither could ever have imagined how fatefully their fantasies would intertwine. The success story of the Man from Hope - via Oxford University to the governorship of Arkansas and the presidency of the United States - beggars the American Dream. The success of the Woman from Lonoke has been to achieve - via a less orthodox route, admittedly - the modern American ambition of making it onto national television and the covers of national magazines. And it is all thanks to him. Had he not risen to become President of the United States their story would have generated a little local interest and no more.

But the final chapter of their story has yet to be written and it might contain a twist. Maybe history will portray her as the lady and not as the tramp. Maybe she will have the last laugh, condemning the Clinton presidency to ridicule for all time. The commander-in-chief of the world's most powerful nation could still end up the biggest loser of all.

THE UNANIMOUS decision by the Supreme Court earlier this month to turn down Clinton's plea for a postponement of the Paula Jones case beyond his term in office has potentially catastrophic consequences for his presidency. All the other scandals he has endured have been complex, mostly financial, impossible to convey in a 30-second soundbite. This one, a story as old as Samson and Delilah, has a simplicity that everyone can understand. No adult American has failed to grasp by now that the tantalising possibility exists of Clinton going down in the record books as the first US President to drop his trousers in court. Whether Jones succeeds in wresting from him the $700,000 (pounds 440,000) in damages she claims for "intentional infliction of emotional distress" could hang on whether she can prove her contention that she spotted "obvious" "distinguishing characteristics" in his genital area. For otherwise it may be impossible to prove the charge contained in her X-rated legal complaint: that he lured her to a hotel room in Little Rock on 8 May 1991, when he was still Governor of Arkansas, and asked her to kiss his erect penis.

Clinton, who was then 44, has said he has "no recollection" of ever having met Jones, who is 20 years younger than him, but acknowledges that he "may very well have met her in the past". Robert Bennett, his pounds 300-an- hour private lawyer, has been less circumspect, dismissing her story as "titillating allegations which really are just tabloid trash with a legal caption". Trash or not, the fact is that right now the White House is torn between those who are advising the President to cut his losses and settle and those who are urging him to fight Jones all the way. A third option, delay, appears to be out of the question: legal experts agree that while the earliest likely date for a trial would be about a year from now, the latest possible date would be in the year 2000, when Clinton would still have some six months of his term to run.

To settle would imply an apology of some sort which, as Jones's lawyers have made clear, would redeem their client's reputation, wipe clean all the sordid things the White House has said about her. An exercise in damage limitation, a settlement would cause deep embarrassment for the President - but, in an age when all American news events seem to involve a sex scandal, the public may soon forget and move on.

If he went to trial the President may win, though he would have to undergo some humiliating interrogations along the way, in a spotlight of publicity that would leave even the OJ Simpson trial in the dark. There again, he may also lose a trial, an outcome which could leave him with no option but to resign the presidency. Either way he would be causing unspeakable embarrassment to his wife and his daughter Chelsea - who unsurprisingly has chosen to go to college as far away as possible from Washington, in Stanford, California.

Whichever legal course Clinton decides on, one thing is clear: the office of the presidency appears to be following down the same slippery path taken by the British royal family. Like Buckingham Palace, the White House has become the stage for a giant national soap opera, one that is no less seedy save for the detail that the femme fatale cuts a less glamorous dash than Princess Di.

PAULA ROSALEE CORBIN, born on 17 September 1966, was never destined to be a fashion queen. The clothes she and her two elder sisters wore as children were hand-made by her mother out of scraps of fabric her father brought home from the clothes factory where he worked. Bobby Gene and Delmar Corbin brought up their girls according to a strict interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. They wore dresses - never trousers. No make-up, no jewellery, no tampering with the hair, which was to be worn long. No movies were allowed, no dancing or any other unsupervised fraternising with boys. As a further precaution against pollution of the mind and flesh, there was no television in the house, an astonishing deprivation in urban America but not unusual in Lonoke, a Bible Belt town of 4,000 people and 18 churches, where the spirit of the Old Testament prevailed over the New. It was - and is - a land of chicken farms, ageing pick-up trucks, caravan homes and big-bellied men with tattoos, blighted by tornados, floods, fires and other natural and unnatural disasters. Like the setting for a Faulkner novel, it is an enclosed, claustrophobic world where people are coiled tight and tragedy never seems to be far away.

To keep the inclement fates at bay the Corbins would sit down every night with their girls to read the Bible and pray. To deter the girls from sin Mother Corbin would dispense daily whippings with the branch of a wild cherry tree. Charlotte, the eldest sister, bore the brunt of the maternal lashes because she received her education for the most part at home - a measure her parents considered necessary because of problems generated by the government's decision in the Sixties racially to integrate the local schools. Neither Lydia, the middle sister, nor Paula ever shone at school but, of the three, Paula was the only one eventually to graduate from high school.

Father Corbin, whose job at the factory was more heavy than uplifting, had a knack for words and music. A member of the Bible Missionary Church he would freelance as a preacher at other congregations, sing in gospel choirs, warm up evangelical revival crowds with the accordion or piano. Often he would bring his three daughters along dressed in bonnets and chaste dresses to sing hymns and recite verses from the Bible. One day in 1985, Bobby Gene Corbin, aged 60, keeled over while playing the piano in church and died.

According to the folks in Lonoke the transformation took place from one day to the next. The girls' skirts shot up the thighs. Lydia and Paula, sisters in crime, painted their nails, permed their hair, wore blue eye- shadow, drank at home, stayed out late. Paula, who was then 19 and seeking, with little success, to obtain employment as a secretary, would shock the neighbours by disporting herself in the yard wearing only a bikini.

In 1986, in what some locals took to be an act of divine retribution, the Corbins' house burnt down. The family moved in with Charlotte who lived in a trailer with her husband Mark Brown, a drop-out from the Marines who worked as a disc jockey at a night club called BJ's Star Studded Honky Tonk, in the state capital of Arkansas, Little Rock. A year later Paula, unrepentant, posed in a G-string for a photographer boyfriend who, much later, after she had become famous, sold the pictures to Penthouse which - despite her legal efforts to stop publication - ran them under the headline "The Devil and Paula Jones".

What was clear back then was that Paula was determined to avoid the fate of her sister Charlotte, to live her life in the fast lane. Steve Jones, whom she met at BJ's in December 1989, was the answer to her prayers, the vehicle for her all-American rage to improve her life materially. Not only did he really look like Elvis - he had played a small part as the ghost of Elvis in an off-beat movie called Mystery Train - he regaled her with expensive gifts. A leather jacket, a Gucci bag. And he had a job that, by the standards to which Paula was accustomed, seemed exotic, full of middle-class promise: he worked at Little Rock airport selling tickets for Northwest Airlines. His dream, a plausible dream on the strength of his one film role, was to become an actor. She was flitting at the time from job to job as a clerical assistant. The two moved in together - into a proper house.

In March 1991 she obtained a job with the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission (AIDC). She soon acquired a reputation among her workers as a chatty, friendly, flirtatious young woman. She worked at the State Capitol and would sometimes make visits to the office of Governor Clinton. She caught the eye of the security guards at the Capitol who nicknamed her Minnie Mouse because of her little girl's voice, the short, tight dresses she wore and her habit of wearing her abundant hair to one side, like the cartoon character.

THE FATEFUL encounter with Governor Clinton took place two months after she was hired. That is what Paula Jones says, and her testimony is backed up by two close friends, her two sisters and an Arkansas state trooper who worked at the time as the Governor's bodyguard.

On 8 May 1991 Clinton attended a business conference at the Excelsior Hotel in Little Rock. He spotted Jones (then still Paula Corbin) working behind the conference registration desk and, immediately taken by her looks, he instructed his bodyguard to arrange a private meeting. She had "that come-hither" look, the bodyguard says the Governor told him.

So the bodyguard, one of four state troopers who claims to have procured women over the years for Governor Clinton, booked a room in the hotel and invited Jones to go up and meet his boss. Startled, confused, but hardly in a position to say no, she accompanied the bodyguard to the room.

There - and this is now according to her legal complaint - the two shook hands and engaged in small talk for a few minutes. "Clinton then took Jones's hand and pulled her toward him," the complaint reads, "so that their bodies were in close proximity. Jones removed her hand from his and retreated several feet. However, Clinton approached Jones again. He said: 'I love the way your hair flows down your back' and 'I love your curves'. While saying these things, Clinton put his hand on plaintiff's leg and started sliding it toward the hem of plaintiff's culottes. Clinton also bent down to attempt to kiss Jones on the neck."

Later she would tell the Washington Post: "His face was just red, beet red."

Then, according to the complaint, Clinton sat down in a sofa, lowered his trousers and underpants and invited her to perform oral sex. Where- upon she jumped up from the sofa, saying that she was "not that kind of a girl", and headed for the door. Before she left, she claims, Clinton told her, "You are smart. Let's keep this between ourselves."

According to the bodyguard the meeting lasted 20 to 30 minutes. According to her friends she arrived back at the registration desk breathless and upset. One of the friends has said that Jones told her that same day about Clinton's unusual "distinguishing mark".

Three years passed and nothing happened. Jones, who married Steve in December 1991, pledged her family and friends to secrecy. A year later, Clinton ran successfully for President, having miraculously negotiated his way through reports of a 12-year affair with Gennifer Flowers (who, incidentally, reported earlier this month that she was not aware of any distinguishing mark on the presidential genitalia) and having been persuaded by a loyal member of staff that the "bimbo eruptions" problem was under control.

Jones decided to go public after a story appeared in the January 1994 issue of American Spectator, a partisan right-wing magazine, quoting an unnamed trooper saying that he had approached a woman called Paula on Clinton's behalf three years earlier and stood guard outside a hotel room in Little Rock as the two "met". The state trooper told American Spectator that she told him afterwards that she was "willing to be Clinton's girlfriend". Out of indignation, she said, and a desire to set right the untrue depiction of her character she called a press conference in Washington DC to tell the world that she had been a victim of "unwanted and improper" sexual advances from Clinton on the said date at the said hotel. She did not do her credibility much good by appearing at the press conference alongside a number of well- known conservative political activists pledged to Clinton's downfall, but she showed she meant business when, on 6 May 1994, she filed a suit against Clinton in federal court.

Whereupon the White House spin doctors, Clinton cronies like James Carville and most of the mainstream media, went into overdrive, portraying Jones variously as "trailer trash", "a gold-digger", a stooge of the right wing and so forth. Bennett, the high-powered Washington attorney Clinton swiftly hired to defend him, said: "This event, plain and simple, didn't happen." Rather less convincingly, Betsey Wright, the official Clinton had appointed to monitor and control the "bimbo eruptions", declared: "What she alleges is simply inconceivable as Clinton behaviour."

If Jones's intention was to portray herself as the opposite of a bimbo she did herself few favours a month after filing suit when, in an act of crass commercial exploitation only the Americans and the Duchess of York can carry off without a sense of the absurd, she appeared at the top of New York's Rockefeller Center wearing a pair of black No Excuses jeans and a white T-shirt bearing the red No Excuses logo. The occasion was a news conference sponsored by the manufacturers of No Excuses clothes to celebrate their decision to award her the title of "The Most Alive and Uncensored Woman in America" and a prize of pounds 30,000 - half of which she gave to a charity that defends battered women. A previous beneficiary of the award had been Donna Rice - she who scuppered Gary Hart's shot at the presidency in 1987 after a photograph surfaced of the two of them in a compromising pose aboard the good ship Monkey Business.

With a solemnity the event manifestly did not justify, Jones complained that she had not received the same support from women's groups as Anita Hill, the law professor who received the enthusiastic backing of Hillary Clinton when she contended she had been harassed by the Supreme Court judge Clarence Thomas. "I'm just a woman left out," she said in her small voice and Clinton Arkansas drawl. "Some American people have put in their minds that I'm a liar, a low-life come out of lil' ol' Lonoke, Arkansas. I don't have no credentials, no law degree like Anita Hill. It really hurts me. But the truth will come out."

SHE WAS in a less self-pitying mood on the evening of 3 June 1997 when the news came through that a no-doubt grimly satisfied Judge Clarence Thomas and his eight conferees at the Supreme Court had rejected Clinton's argument that Presidents are constitutionally immune from law suits resulting from their private actions. In fact she squealed with delight. "Are you kidding me?" she asked one of her lawyers. "Come on, really?" Then she broke down crying. Later she told Newsweek that she couldn't believe the court's verdict. "You know, I feel like I've been done so dirty, and now this. I got my faith back in the system."

So has she been done dirty, or, as her detractors say, is she the dirty one, is she a devious little muckraker? One line of speculation is to ponder what sort of a defence Robert Bennett, Clinton's lawyer, would present in the case of the suit ever making it to court. Since a trial's outcome would depend quite simply on a jury's sense of who was lying, Clinton or Jones, the defence strategy would be to follow the lead of the White House attack dogs and brand Jones a mischievous slut. Robert Bennett has already warned that he has an ex-boyfriend of Jones's up his sleeve to testify about her wanton sexual habits. More plausibly, but also more dangerously, he may wish to call on Jones's elder sister Charlotte and her husband Mark Brown who have broken ranks with the rest of the family by leaping patriotically to the President's cause.

This would be a manoeuvre born of desperation, however, because Charlotte contends that her sister did indeed engage in hanky-panky with Governor Clinton in Little Rock's Excelsior Hotel. Where she differs from her sister's account is that she says Jones was not so much in a state of shock when she spoke of the encounter as delighted, thrilled. Three years later, when Jones was deciding whether to go public with the alleged incident or not, Charlotte says she told her that "whichever way it went, she smelled money".

Mark Brown, in whose trailer home Jones lived after the Corbin family home burnt down, subscribes to the White House view that she is gold-digging white trash. A small-town Arkansas politician known for his off-colour language, he is a burly man with a bushy beard who sports a tattoo of a bare-breasted woman on his arm. An avid Democrat and Clinton admirer, he believes that the version Jones gave his wife of the incident in the hotel room was a lie. "To stand up, and here comes a woman in a hotel, and he's in a room and drops his trousers and says, 'Kiss it' - nosirree," Brown told the Washington Post. "I have never known anybody, myself included, to walk up to a woman and say something like that."

According to Brown, who has conducted numerous interviews with the press, Jones was not beneath behaving in such a manner herself. For example, he has said, she would go around pinching men's buttocks at a bar called the Red Lobster; she would quite brazenly show him and others "the erotic pictures" that would later appear in Penthouse. And as for her style of dress, "If I hadn't been married, I'd probably have propositioned her myself. Paula dressed... provocative ain't even the word for it. If a woman dresses to where a man is almost seeing it... well!"

Jones's purpose, Brown argues, was to use men to sate her lust for cash. Her vilification of the President - and on this he and his wife concur - obeys the same impulse, only on a much larger scale. Charlotte and Mark Brown believe that Jones has convinced herself that down the line she will make millions from the book and film rights of her story.

By contrast, Jones's mother and her sister Lydia have backed her completely, as have the two friends to whom she says she told about the hotel-room meeting immediately after it happened. Silently, her Elvis look-alike husband Steve has stood by her, too. Since their marriage five and a half years ago they have had two children with whom they now live far from home in a modest beach-front flat in Long Beach, California. Like the celebrities in nearby Hollywood she has become a prisoner of her own fame, rarely daring to go out in public, spending most of her time at home with the television blaring, according to her neighbours, and looking after her two little boys, four and nine months old. But much as now, aged 30, she may crave the return of her anonymity, she is determined to see the case through. "I want him to admit what he did," she told Newsweek. "I'm not going to give up."

In another place and time Paula Jones would be dead by now. As it is, all she has had to endure from the powers-that-be is an orchestrated campaign of character assassination. So far, that has been the Clinton camp's best and only shot. And maybe they are on target. She might have a political agenda. She might be a social-climbing sexual tease who spent her late teens and early twenties battling to rise out of the narrow, impoverished, religiously repressed mire in which she was raised. But then all the more reason, perhaps, why Clinton would have recognised in her a kindred spirit, why instinct would have drawn him to her white-trash charms. For after all that is where his roots lie. !