Clinton's defence slides in court of the people opinion

Latest sex claim may induce public opinion to make judgements that the law cannot, writes Mary Dejevsky in Washington
Click to follow
LAST night's television interview with Kathleen Willey was the latest and perhaps the most damaging component in the steady accumulation of sex allegations against President Bill Clinton.

He is accused of making unwanted advances to a woman who had come to him in personal distress to ask for a paying job, a charge he strongly denies. But an almost equally damaging claim is made by this week's edition of Newsweek magazine, which accuses him of arranging for one of his Democratic party allies, Nathan Landow, to put pressure on Ms Willey not to make her accusation public.

In reasoning that seems familiar from other alleged Clinton sex cases, Mr Landow is quoted as telling her that if she says "nothing happened", she cannot be contradicted.

So far as public opinion is concerned, it is Ms Willey's personal testimony that will probably count for the most. She appears a credible witness, more credible than the others and more of a victim.

So far as the law goes, it is probably the claims that he, or his allies or subordinates, exerted pressure on his accusers that weigh most.

Mr Clinton is currently being judged in two courts at once: the court of law and the court of public opinion.

In the judicial court, he is involved in two cases. There is Paula Jones's civil suit for sexual harassment, relating to an incident in 1991 when he was Arkansas state governor and she was a government employee. And there is a criminal investigation, part of which claims that he had an affair with a young White House trainee, Monica Lewinsky, and induced her to lie about it.

As yet, Mr Clinton's defence in both cases has held up well, assisted by a domestic media operation that was so pummelled by (White House) accusations of irresponsibility and inaccuracy early on that it has played safe ever since.

Whatever happened in the Arkansas hotel room or with Ms Lewinsky in the White House, no third-party evidence seems yet to have emerged to corroborate the charges. It is a "she said-he said" scenario that, lawyers say, would make it hard to find Mr Clinton liable.

For all the pages of testimony made public by Ms Jones's lawyers on Friday, it still seems contestable whether Ms Jones has a case for sexual harassment, either in terms of what did or did not happen to her in the hotel room or in terms of whether her career was damaged.

Ms Willey, on the other hand, might have such a case - but she is not suing and for a while her career seemed to prosper.

While it may not help Ms Jones in a court of law, however, the "pattern of conduct" in the President that her lawyers have sought to prove could have a significant impact on public opinion.

And Ms Willey's graphic television interview could help to bring the other women's experiences to life in a way that even the printed verbatim of their legal testimony did not do.

Whether they were willingly involved with Mr Clinton or not, all the women cited - from his self-confessed mistress, Gennifer Flowers, through to Monica Lewinsky - seem to have been encouraged to keep silent.

In law, the individual cases are steadfastly refusing to mesh to the benefit of Mr Clinton's accusers. There may be evidence of pressure being exerted in Ms Willey's case, but not in Ms Lewinsky's, which is the one under investigation.

Public opinion, however, is liable to make connections that the law cannot do.

The fact that Mr Clinton's approval ratings are now starting to fall, suggests that the avalanche of evidence that has come out this weekend could precipitate an even steeper slide.