Clinton scandal: Privates on parade as sex harassment case turns ugly

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As Bill Clinton busies himself with the affairs of state in Washington, a court in Arkansas is working steadily through the preliminaries of a case that threatens to expose a cruder side to the President. But Americans cannot decide whether they want to know about it or not, as Mary Dejevsky reports.

This week, television viewers in Washington DC were surprised to see a commercial featuring a picture of a women looking very like Paula Jones - the woman who accuses Bill Clinton of exposing himself to her in an Arkansas hotel room six years ago and asking for oral sex. The commercial asks for women who may have been "sexually harassed by the President" to register their complaints.

No one ever pretended that the lawsuit known as "Paula Jones v the President of the United States" would be an edifying experience. Since late summer, however, when Ms Jones rejected a financial settlement - rumoured to be close to the $700,000 she had originally claimed - sacked her lawyers and hired an aggressive PR consultant, things have started to get brutal.

Ms Jones has submitted a list of intimate questions to Mr Clinton in an attempt to solicit details of his sex life and his anatomy. Her lawyers have also named - and in at least one case, subpoenaed - women believed to be former girlfriends of the President, including Gennifer Flowers. She is the woman named during the 1992 election campaign as his long-time mistress, who has steadfastly refused to speak against him.

The strategy is two-fold: to show "a pattern of behaviour" in Mr Clinton's past and to demonstrate the veracity of an affidavit Ms Jones reportedly swore when she first brought her case three years ago that could prove her case. In the affidavit, Ms Jones apparently describes "distinguishing characteristics" of Mr Clinton's "genital area".

Last month, it seemed thepuzzle of the distinguishing characteristics had been solved, when newspapers quoted "sources" as saying she referred to a curvature of the President's erect penis - a phenomenon said to be caused by Peyronie's disease. The theory was backed up by more "informed sources" saying that Mr Clinton had been tested for this condition during his annual medical examination the previous week.

Meanwhile, the court in Little Rock, Arkansas, was embarking on the preliminary hearings of witnesses that are a prelude to most American court cases. So far, evidence has been taken from Ms Jones's close relatives, former colleagues, and a couple of women said to have been high-school girlfriends of Bill Clinton.

The odds that the case will actually come to court on the appointed date of 26 May have shortened dramatically. Having rejected a settlement said to be close to what she had asked for, because it was conditional on Mr Clinton not accepting responsibility or apologising, Ms Jones is said to want only to restore her reputation.

Mr Clinton's lawyer, Robert Bennett, has donehis utmost to keep the case out of court (and out of the headlines). After failing to have the case deferred - to protect the President from distraction during his term of office - or dismissed for lack of evidence, Mr Bennett has successfully persuaded the judge to impose a "gag" order on the preliminary hearings to prevent the testimony from becoming public.

In keeping the case low-key, however, Mr Bennett has also been considerably helped by the ambivalence of the American media about what should and should not be disclosed. Popular curiositycomes up against American prudishness and deference to the office of the presidency. Even before the gag order, little emerged from the Little Rock hearings, and the reporting of the distinguishing characteristics and related matters has been highly politicised.

The mainstream media, including the New York Times, Washington Post and network television, have fought shy of even mentioning penile matters. Details have been reported, however, not just by the tabloids, but by the right-wing anti-Clinton Washington Times.

This media division lends support to the view that Ms Jones - who is thousands of dollars in debt to two former sets of lawyers - may have funding from a section of the religious right that wants to discredit Mr Clinton as President and politician and will stop at nothing to do so. Ms Jones, however, denies that her cause is in any way political, and the pleas for funds that scatter the Internet on her behalf suggest that, wherever her funding comes from, she could do with more.