Junk sex and politics

For American presidents, casual affairs come with the territory. But Paula Jones may yet harm Clinton in a way that Gennifer Flowers never could.
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The naive narrator of Primary Colours, the is-it-fact, is-it-fiction novel based on Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, was shocked by the incident of the librarian, a serious, middle-aged lady with nice legs. One moment she is explaining her work to the visiting candidate, Stanton; the next moment she is adjusting her dress before leaving his hotel bedroom.

Perhaps if he had had longer experience of American political campaigns, he might have been less shocked. Junk sex is as much part of the campaign routine as junk food and 4am baggage calls. Campaign aides are for the most part young, they're having the time of their lives, and they feel they are on the brink of power. And power, as the less-than-romantically- handsome Dr Henry Kissinger famously observed, is a great aphrodisiac.

Sex and politics make an explosive mixture, in America as in Britain. What President Bill Clinton is finding out, as the Supreme Court hears evidence in the case brought against him by Paula Corbin Jones, is that Americans' attitudes to their political leaders' "pecker-dilloes", if I may use that phrase, are as dangerous as they are unpredictable.

Politicians, in the US as elsewhere, have not always stuck to the narrow path of marital virtue, and journalists, who have always had closer access to politicians there than here, have always known it. Without delving as far back as Thomas Jefferson's alleged affair with the mulatto Sally Hemmings, the slave and quite possibly the daughter of Jefferson's wife's father, well-informed people in Washington were well aware that Franklin Roosevelt had at least two mistresses while he was in the White House.

General Eisenhower had a wartime fling with his British driver, Kay Summersby, while he was engaged in what he later called his crusade in Europe. There was gossip about John Kennedy's love life, in particular persistent but untrue rumours about an earlier marriage, while he was still alive. And plenty of stories, true or untrue, were told in the press corps about Lyndon Johnson's rough country wooing.

It wasn't until after Kennedy's death, however, and specifically not until one of his lovers, Judith Campbell Exner, previously and perhaps concurrently the mistress of a Mafia don, confessed, or boasted of, her affair with the incumbent or rather (given his painful back problems) with the succumbent President, that the press began to report politicians' sexual adventures as a matter of course.

Since then, the reactions of the media, and the public, to more or less plausible reports of sexual straying on the part of politicians have been puzzling. Senator Edward Kennedy's career was seriously damaged by the Chappaquiddick incident, but the girl in that case died; responses to the murky events of that evening, when a young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned while being given a lift from a late-night party in the senator's car, have focused on other aspects of the case, such as the way the Kennedy clan manipulated press coverage, as much as on the suspicions that the senator was sexually involved with Mary Jo.

Subsequent events in Senator Kennedy's career cast only a fitful light on public attitudes. For years, the senator's car was to be seen, with its licence plate saying "Massachusetts Senator 1", outside various ladies' homes in Washington. No wonder that Senator Gary Hart, who complains bitterly about the injustice of the fact that his own escapade on board the sailboat Saucy Lady, crewed by a model called Donna Rice, should have ended his bid for the presidency in 1984. But Hart helped to bring on his own discomfiture by virtually challenging the Miami Herald and the rest of the press to find evidence that he was committing adultery.

Clinton himself was keenly aware of what his own people called the "Hart problem". For from an early stage in his political career Clinton had a gamy reputation. And, sure enough, once he declared his candidacy for the presidency, rumours and something more than rumours of his sexual adventures began to surface. Then, just as he was getting ready to run for president, Gennifer Flowers came forward with the accusation that she had had a long affair with him.

Clinton survived the Flowers allegations, mainly because, out of who knows what mixture of affection and ambition, Hillary Rodham Clinton stuck by her man. With great courage, the Clintons said, in effect, "We have had our problems. Who hasn't? And why is it better to be divorced (like Ronald Reagan and Bob Dole, to name but two), than to struggle to keep a marriage together in spite of problems?" With great maturity and sophistication, the majority of the American electorate bought that. And Clinton was helped by the decency (and perhaps the caution) with which his opponent, George Bush, refused to use the Flowers allegations. Perhaps caution, because rumours circulated in Washington that Bush, too, had a Jennifer of his own.

In 1992 at least a dozen young women came forward to claim that they, too, had caught Governor Clinton's eye. And in late-1993, with Clinton's popularity at a low ebb, a new set of allegations appeared in a right- wing magazine, the American Spectator. Five State troopers, members of the Governor's own protection detail in the State police, made detailed allegations about the Governor's philandering. They also said that they had, in effect, pimped for him.

There were many things about the story that would give even the greenest reporter pause. The notoriously partisan Spectator was obviously out to "get" Clinton; and the troopers were clearly motivated by resentment that, as they saw it, the Governor had not kept promises of perks and promotions.

Still, the case of Paula Corbin Jones rang differently. Her story, which she has stuck to, was that Clinton noticed her, a junior state employee, as she was sitting at the registration desk in the poshest hotel in Little Rock; that one of the troopers was told by Clinton to rent a suite and to bring Jones to it. In the room, as she put it later, he "came on to her", and finally, his face "beet red", dropped his trousers and asked her, as she put it, to "perform a particular sexual act that did not require me to remove my clothes".

They were the wrong trousers, or rather Paula Jones, a preacher's daughter, was the wrong person to drop them in front of. Her boyfriend, now her husband, was outraged, and she has pursued her civil action - for infringing her civil rights by asking her to perform the sex act - with great determination ever since. In particular, she maintains that she can prove her story if she can oblige the President to submit to inspection so that she can identify a distinctive mark on the presidential genitals.

What the Supreme Court now has to decide is not whether she is telling the truth, but whether a sitting president can be brought to trial while in office, or whether the case must wait until he is a private citizen again, in this instance until 2001.

The Court will not give its decision for some days or even weeks. If it decides that Paula Jones's case must go forward, it will test to the limit the American public's apparent new indifference to sexual scandal. It may be one thing for the voters to ignore rumours that their chief magistrate had an affair - another for them to respect a man convicted of sordid sexual harassment of an employee, aided by his own police. We shall not know that for certain until the Supreme Court has taken its decision, and the lower court reached its verdictn