The trial that could undo the President

Forget Whitewater - it's Mrs Jones who could cause Bill Clinton real trouble, reports John Carlin in Washington

Bill Clinton may not be the first American president to have engaged in adultery, but he could go down in history as the first to drop his trousers in court.

It all depends on whether a sexual harassment suit pending against him since May 1994 is heard before the end of his presidential term. The answer will turn on how the Supreme Court responds to an appeal Mr Clinton lodged earlier this year. The appeal claims that he merits relief from civil proceedings for the duration of his presidential term. In January the nine-man court will meet to make its ruling.

Other inquisitions await Mr Clinton in the coming months. His joy at securing re-election last week will have been tempered by the knowledge that a myriad of congressional and legal investigations hang over his head concerning the unlawful Whitewater land deal; the circumstances behind the suicide of Hillary Clinton's close friend, White House counsel Vince Foster; the secret FBI files on Republican politicians obtained by White House staff members; and the possibly unlawful campaign contributions made to the Democratic Party by Asian businessmen with links to the Clintons.

Damning as the outcome of these and other inquiries might prove to the President's reputation, they pale into insignificance compared to the excruciatingly embarrassing possibilities contained in the sexual harassment suit. If the case goes to court - a course of action seemingly warranted by the available evidence - it is not fanciful to suggest that the judge will insist that Mr Clinton submit his genitalia to inspection. Not physically in the presence of the jury, but as an evidentiary exhibit validated by medical science and the law.

The plaintiff in the case, Paula Corbin Jones, makes the following X- rated allegation in her complaint: "Clinton then approached the sofa and as he sat down he lowered his trousers and underwear, exposing his erect penis and asked Jones to `kiss it'. There were distinguishing characteristics in Clinton's genital area that were obvious to Jones." Mr Clinton's lawyer, Robert Bennet, dismissed Mrs Jones's story last week as "titillating allegations which really are just tabloid trash with a legal caption". He was responding to an article on the Jones suit published in the latest issue of the American Lawyer, an in-house magazine of the legal profession.

Far from being trash, the article has evidently been researched with sober thoroughness by the author, Stuart Taylor, a self-confessed Clinton voter who is a senior staff writer on the magazine. Mr Taylor's conclusion, based on mountains of evidence that include interviews with witnesses prepared to testify in court on Mrs Jones' behalf, is that contrary to Mr Clinton's claim that he has no recollection of ever having met the plaintiff, "clear and convincing proof" exists that he did have a private encounter with her in a hotel room in Little Rock on 8 May 1991, when he was still governor of Arkansas. The evidence is no less clear and convincing that the meeting occurred at Mr Clinton's behest and that his intentions were sexual. The only question appears to be whether harassment was involved.

The testimony of two close friends of Mrs Jones, her two sisters and an Arkansas state trooper who used to be Mr Clinton's bodyguard, combine to furnish a damning tale. On 8 May 1991 Governor Clinton attended a conference at the Excelsior Hotel in Little Rock. Working behind the conference registration desk was Paula Corbin, then a single woman of 24. Big-haired, curvaceous, she caught the governor's eye. He told his bodyguard to arrange a private meeting with her. She had "that come-hither" look, the bodyguard says the governor told him.

So the bodyguard, one of four state troopers who claim to have procured women over the years for Mr Clinton, booked a room in the hotel and invited a startled Ms Corbin, who worked as a lowly paid clerk at the time, to go up and meet his boss. Confused, but hardly in a position to say no, she accompanied the bodyguard to the room.

There - according to the plaintiff's complaint - the two shook hands and engaged in small talk for a few minutes. "Clinton then took Jones's hand and pulled her toward him, so that their bodies were in close proximity. Jones removed her hand from his and retreated several feet. However, Clinton approached Jones again.

"He said: `I love the way your hair flows down your back' and `I love your curves.' While saying these things, Clinton put his hand on plaintiff's leg and started sliding it toward the hem of plaintiff's culottes. Clinton also bent down to attempt to kiss Jones on the neck." Mrs Jones was later to tell the Washington Post: "His face was just red, beet red."

Then, according to the complaint, he invited her to perform oral sex. Whereupon she jumped up from the sofa, saying that she was "not that kind of a girl", and headed for the door. Before she left, she claims, Mr Clinton told her: "You are smart. Let's keep this between ourselves."

According to the bodyguard the meeting lasted 20 to 30 minutes. According to her friends she arrived back at the registration desk breathless and upset. One friend said that Mrs Jones told her later that same day about Mr Clinton's odd "distinguishing mark", identified by her lawyers as a key corroborating element in her account which they plan to bring up in court.

Only Mr Clinton and Mrs Jones know exactly what happened that afternoon, but if the encounter was entirely innocent, the question is begged: why hasn't the President come forward and related his version of events? One answer could be that Mrs Jones is lying - that actually she engaged in consensual sex with him, a revelation that Mr Clinton would not have wanted to make public before last week's election.

In that sense, his lawyers' stalling tactics have already achieved their aim. His concern now is to avoid being held up to ridicule for the rest of time. For, no matter how glorious his political achievements turn out to be these next four years, full exposure of his entanglement with Mrs Jones would ensure that he is predominantly remembered for only one thing.

A curious irony will lurk behind January's all-important Supreme Court hearing. One of the members of the court is Clarence Thomas, the conservative judge who endured torment five years ago when Anita Hill claimed that he had sexually harassed her. Ms Hill, an instant TV celebrity, became a heroine of the American women's movement. She received an award at a luncheon hosted in August 1992 by the American Bar Association.

Among the speakers who praised Ms Hill's "courageous testimony" against Judge Thomas was a woman who may not harbour similar feelings towards Mrs Jones. The woman's name was Hillary Clinton.

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