Paula Jones Case: An episode of low farce - and the highest tribute to American justice

As we chortle at the predicament of the commander-in-chief of the mightiest nation on earth, as we snicker over his "distinguishing characteristics", as we gasp at the impudence of his twittish accuser and the quirky little gang of fame-seeking charlatans who spur her on, let us also - without risk of contradiction - take off our hats and marvel. Let us raise a glass to the land of opportunity, the home of individual rights.

For while, yes, Paula Jones' sexual harassment suit against Bill Clinton is indisputably an episode of low farce, an inglorious moment in the history of the US presidency, it is no less indisputable that it marks a high point in the evolution of American democracy, that it represents a triumph of the rule of law.

For six hours on Saturday President Clinton sat at one end of a long table in the conference room of his attorney's Washington office. He was flanked, on one side, by Ms Jones and her six lawyers, on the other side by a smaller team of lawyers representing him. The session was behind closed doors and a judicial gag-order forbids any of the parties present from disclosing the exchanges that took place. We do know for sure, however, that Ms Jones' lawyers asked the President point-blank whether during his tenure as Governor of Arkansas, on the afternoon of 8 May 1991, he invited their client to a hotel room, lowered his trousers, exposed his erect member and asked her to kiss it. We can also confidently surmise that he was interrogated at length about his legendary sexual indiscretions, and questioned in particular about whether he had ever abused his position as Governor and boss to proposition any other women in the employment of the state of Arkansas.

At the far end of the room, directly opposite the President, a video camera recorded the inquisition - the first time ever that a sitting President of the United States had given sworn testimony as a defendant in a legal proceeding, testimony that may be used in evidence against him when the case goes to trial on 27 May.

Crazily, even as the President was undergoing this extraordinary ordeal, the world was reverberating to the news from Baghdad that Saddam Hussein was once again rattling the sabre of war. This week Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat visit Washington in yet another attempt to defuse the looming catastrophe in the Middle East. Immediately upon his return to the White House on Saturday afternoon the President conferred with his chief of staff about the financial crisis in the Far East and sat down to examine the draft of his State of the Union address, that is just a week away.

Fully cognisant of the possibility that the President might have all this and more on his plate, the Supreme Court ruled last May against a motion by Mr Clinton's lawyers calling for a special exemption. Mr Clinton wanted the Paula Jones trial to be deferred until after the end of his presidential term. The Supreme Court said that no American citizen, no matter how exalted, was above the law.

And thus it came about that on Saturday morning, as Ms Jones prepared to face down the President for the first time since allegedly saying to him seven years ago, "I'm not that kind of girl," she hit upon the heart of the matter when she declared: "I feel so proud to be an American, to know that this judicial system works, to know that a little girl from Arkansas is equal to the President of the United States."

George Washington might be turning in his grave but, on reflection, he would have to recognise, however grudgingly, the exemplary justness of the principle Ms Jones is upholding. The fact that she did not actually utter those words herself is another matter, one that draws attention to the tawdriness of this particular exercise in defence of freedom and the rights of man and woman. The quote was attributed to her in a press interview by Susan Carpenter-McMillan, a peroxide blonde of indeterminate age from Southern California who has seized on the opportunity to savour her 15 minutes of fame by appointing herself Mrs Jones' publicist, fashion counsellor and Svengali.

Insinuating herself into the baby-voiced Ms Jones' graces by talking to her in the baby language she best understands, Ms Carpenter-McMillan has helped organise Ms Jones' book pitches, her jewellery purchases for media appearances, the boarding arrangements for her little dog Mitzie. With the assistance of Danny DiCriscio, Hollywood hairstylist for Playboy centrefolds, Ms Carpenter-McMillan has overseen Ms Jones' cosmetic transformation from big-haired, neon-painted "trailer-trash" to sleek, Avon lady manquee.

The financing for the Paula Jones circus comes from a wealthy Virginian good ole' boy named John Wayne Whitehead whose Rutherford Institute has a history of espousing little local Christian right-wing causes. It was odd that an organisation so pious, devoted to promoting prayer in schools and so forth, should have embraced a case so prurient, so vividly precise in its descriptions of the erect presidential member's purportedly curious shape. Yet when asked by the New York Times in an interview yesterday whether there had been any political agenda behind his decision to take up arms on behalf of Ms Jones, Mr Whitehead replied, "Oh, gosh, no!"

It is tempting to speculate that if Ms Jones is prepared to consort with such crass merchants of humbuggery then perhaps she is, as her detractors in the Clinton camp say, a gold-digging floozy whose whole case against the President rests on a devious and infantile lie - like those children who somehow invent amazingly lurid tales of sexual abuse by their foster parents, without quite grasping what the consequences of their accusations will be.

But that will be for the courts to decide. What is true beyond reasonable doubt is that the adventures of Paula Jones offer an unlikely illustration of the chief reason why America is the economic powerhouse of the planet. Where America is way ahead of the Europeans and everyone else is in the scope it provides its citizens to get ahead in life. Paula Jones was born in rural Arkansas 31 years ago into a poor Bible-bashing household where television was prohibited, where miscreant children were disciplined with "a good whupping", where the family's clothes were hand-made by her mother out of scraps of fabric her father brought home from the factory where he worked.

This weekend, Ms Jones flew her hairdresser, Mr DiCriscio, from Los Angeles to Washington for the big day. No one can deny, no matter how distasteful her methods might have been, that she has come a long way.

More important, the failure of the President of the United States to escape the full force of the law, against his deepest wishes and those of his unfortunate wife and daughter, sets an example to the rest of the world, to tyrannies and democracies alike. Once the laughter has subsided, we might all fruitfully pause in wonder for a moment of sober thought.

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