Clinton clings to affairs of state: Sex claim 'tabloid trash'

WHEN Paula Jones first met the media, on the fringe of a meeting of conservative activists in Washington last February, her then lawyer, Daniel Traylor, said she was there to offer a 'blow-by-blow' account of a hotel-room encounter with Bill Clinton in May 1991. The choice of words, predictably, triggered hilarity among journalists.

But there was worse to come. On Friday, a lawsuit over the alleged incident was filed at the court building in Little Rock, Arkansas, and copies were handed to the press. The amusement this time, notably over references to the defendant's genitals, was of a tangibly different kind; it had a stifled embarrassment to it. 'Can this really be happening to the President of the United States?' was the unspoken question.

The implications of the lawsuit are indeed astonishing. If the litigation is not quickly smothered by Mr Clinton's newly hired lawyers, we may eventually see the leader of the world's only superpower testifying under oath about oral sex - and he may have to submit to having his penis photographed as evidence.

For the President, clearly, there is nothing to laugh about. No one seriously suggests that Paula Jones can bring him down. But however her suit is resolved, it can only aggravate popular uncertainty, stirred up by the Whitewater affair, about the President's decency and integrity - the so-called 'character question'. He can combat this process of erosion only by proving that, when it comes to the tasks he was elected to perform - managing the economy, tackling crime and even taking care of world events - he can deliver. This has become the key strategy of the White House.

What is alleged, while perhaps not of a heinous, criminal nature, is unedifying enough. The 20-page document filed by Ms Jones recounts what she says happened three years ago today, when she was a receptionist at a state-sponsored convention attended by then Governor Clinton at Little Rock's Excelsior Hotel.

She says she was approached by state trooper Danny Ferguson - a co-defendant in the suit - and invited to visit the governor in a room upstairs. When she got there, she says, he first complimented her, then tried to slide his hand up her culotte, and after she had retreated to a sofa, dropped his trousers and pants and requested oral sex.

Demanding damages of dollars 750,000 ( pounds 500,000), the lawsuit accuses Mr Clinton of 'wilful, outrageous and malicious' conduct, and of 'sexually harassing and assaulting' Ms Jones, who is now 27. It is in the midst of the legal text that reference is made to Mr Clinton's 'erect penis' and the fact that it has 'distinguishing characteristics' that 'were obvious' to the plaintiff. Citing a similar procedure inflicted on Michael Jackson after the recent allegations of child molestation, legal experts confirmed that the President could indeed face the indignity of having investigators photograph him to establish whether such features exist.

Mr Clinton refused to 'dignify' the accusations with a response. But the lawyer retained for the case, Robert Bennett, lashed out, calling the suit 'tabloid trash'. Thus began the process of public attack and counter-attack to which the American television-viewing and newspaper-reading public has become so accustomed: with Michael, with Tonya and Nancy, with Mia and Woody, and now with Bill and Paula.

The President's first hope is that the bulldog-like Mr Bennett, while wasting no time in discrediting Ms Jones, will be able to demonstrate that the suit is not permissible from the outset. If he fails, a potentially lengthy and highly dangerous 'disclosure' period will begin, during which both sides will be free to seek any evidence and testimony germane to the arguments they will eventually make before a jury.

This would allow Ms Jones and her lawyers to open a 'Pandora's Box' on Mr Clinton's private past, Mr Bennett noted.

'If you want to hurt the President of the United States, this is how you do it,' says Jim Coleman, a prominent Washington attorney. 'You bring this lawsuit, then you try to drag out his past - anything that is relevant, including trying to expose what relations he may have had with other women.'

Whatever the risk to Ms Jones, it will probably not be financial. Unlike in Britain, even when the plaintiffs lose, US judges rarely require that they pay costs and the defence's legal fees. Besides, Ms Jones may not lose. Paul Rothstein, professor of law at Georgetown University, thinks she may have a decent shot: 'This is not an off-the wall lawsuit. This is a case that the President is going to have to defend seriously.' Nor has anyone missed the echoes from the 1991 confrontation between Anita Hill and Republican Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Urged on by Democrats, Ms Hill accused the judge of sexual harassment 10 years earlier, and almost derailed his confirmation. For Democrats now to cry foul would ring rather hollow.

But there are factors working in the President's favour. The suspicion of an undeclared political agenda clearly undermines Ms Jones, as does any suggestion that she may be in it for the money. Although lawyers have said she intended to give any damages she won to charity, no mention was made of the other lucrative possibilities: book contracts, television appearances and the inevitable Hollywood TV movie.

Ms Jones' elder sister, Charlotte Brown, hardly helped by declaring that Paula had said that she 'smelled money' in pursuing the suit. (Ms Hill went on to travel the lucrative speech circuit, and recently sealed a valuable book contract.)

And so far, neither the public nor even the American press - with some tabloid exceptions - has shown it has much stomach for such a scandal. Even on the day the suit was filed, it was not the main item on the evening news bulletins.

This almost squeamish distaste was epitomised by the normally merciless New York Times columnist, William Safire: 'Here sits America, with no appetite and in the wrong restaurant, served up a costly, tasteless, warmed-over dish it didn't order and cannot send back.'

It may be helping the President that tales of sexual misconduct on his part are old news. An opinion poll last week actually showed his popularity rating up slightly to a healthy

57 per cent. And Mr Clinton achieved a huge personal political boost on Thursday by being able to claim partial credit for the stunning passage in the House of Representatives of a ban on 19 types of automatic assault weapon.

Still, Mr Clinton appears increasingly to be in a race with ghosts from his past, whether to do with womanising or Whitewater. To stay far enough ahead to ensure his re-election in 1996, he will need many more such successes - and as few as possible of the kind of confrontation taking place at the courthouse in Little Rock.

(Photograph omitted)

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