Must the judges undo all the President's modesty? Will judges lay bare all the President's modesty?

Click to follow
The Independent Online
It all stems from what might have happened between two people over a few minutes in an Arkansas hotel room on 8 May 1991. But today the sexual harassment charges brought by Paula Corbin Jones against Bill Clinton come before the Supreme Court. The court's ruling this summer will certainly create constitutional history - and quite possibly huge new trouble for the President.

A week before his inauguration for a second, ghosts of scandals old and new are gathering around the White House. Congress is planning for hearings into the controversy over dubious Democratic campaign fund-raising, while his one-time political strategist Dick Morris, who resigned over a liaison with a prostitute, has just published some self-serving memoirs with a host of titillating detail about his work for Mr Clinton. In terms of potential humiliation, however, neither comes close to the Paula Jones affair.

"I only have control over what I do," Mr Clinton said on Friday, when asked to comment on the involvement of the Supreme Court, which will not pronounce on the substance of the case, but whether a sitting President should be obliged to stand trial in a civil case. His words strain credulity, however, if Ms Jones's account of what happened five years ago is to be believed.

On that 8 May, she was a low-level state employee, a $6-an-hour receptionist at a business conference at the Excelsior Hotel in Little Rock, when, she says, she was asked to meet then Governor Clinton in a private room. There, Ms Jones claims, Mr Clinton caressed her hair before exposing himself and asking for oral sex. She says she refused and left.

In 1994 she told her story in public, to be greeted initially by derision. But after the final breakdown of efforts to reach an out-of-court settlement, she brought a $700,000 (pounds 450,000) sexual harassment suit to clear her name. Mr Clinton's lawyers say his duties as President mean he should be granted temporary immunity. But today, in a case without precedent, Ms Jones's lawyers will argue that no man is above the normal workings of the law.

In purely political terms, the controversy is less damaging than Whitewater and the other "scandals" beating around the President. He faces no further election, he cannot be impeached for it, and most Americans have long since made up their minds, for better or worse, about Mr Clinton's private life. The embarrassment of it, however, could hardly be surpassed.

To make matters worse, the media mood is turning in Ms Jones's favour. Once the establishment press treated her tale as the fabrication of a floozie out to make some fast money.

But last autumn the respected American Lawyer magazine weighed in with an influential article arguing that Ms Jones had a decent case, not least because she had told six people what allegedly happened within two days of the incident, one - her colleague receptionist - 10 minutes after leaving the hotel room. Last week her case made the cover of Newsweek under the headline "Should she be heard?" To which Newsweek's answer was: yes, and its advice to the President equally trenchant: Settle out of court, fast.

One powerful reason is money. Already the President has run up an estimated $1.5m in legal fees, and the meter of his $475-an-hour lawyer Robert Bennett will tick even faster if the Justices allow the case to proceed. The betting is they will.

Although they may well rule the case should not actually go to court before Mr Clinton leaves office in 2001, they are likely to permit the "discovery" phase, in which evidence is gathered, to begin at once. This will see Mr Clinton submitting to detailed questioning about his extra- marital sexual habits as Governor - and conceivably to a degrading physical examination to test Ms Jones's claim that she can identify "distinguishing characteristics" in the President's genital area.