Clinton In Crisis: Three decisions that led to public disgrace

THE JUDICIAL DILEMMA: Lewinsky's revelations might never have emerged but for the Jones case, argues Mary Dejevsky

Share
Related Topics
THE PREDICAMENT President Clinton faces this weekend has been dictated by three fateful decisions. The first came on 27 May 1997, when the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously that even a president must answer a civil lawsuit. The second in January 1998, when the President denied - first under oath, and then on television - a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. And the third came in early August, when Ms Lewinsky agreed to tell all in a courtroom in Washington.

The Supreme Court decision was the pivot. Of all the cases argued by his lawyers since he took office, this was the one most keenly fought and the defeat most bitterly regretted.

A woman named Paula Jones had alleged that Mr Clinton called her to a hotel room in the Arkansas capital, Little Rock, in 1991, when he was state governor and she a state employee, and solicited her for oral sex. Three years later, when he was President, she brought a case for sexual harassment and defamation, following the appearance of a magazine article naming a certain "Paula".

Mr Clinton's lawyers argued that the case should be deferred until he had completed his term of office, arguing that the case would contravene the principle of separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary and distract the President from his duties. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the President was not above the law and that Ms Jones's rights should not be infringed just because the individual she was suing happened to have been elected President in the interim.

A very few legal experts disputed the ruling from the start, mostly on the grounds of distraction. At each stage of the Lewinsky case, they have pronounced themselves vindicated. Most, however, concurred with the court that a president was as answerable for his personal conduct as anyone else. That view may in future be contested - quoting the implications of Jones v Clinton. But it will not help Mr Clinton. If the Paula Jones suit had not proceeded, it is at least arguable that Mr Clinton's relationship with Ms Lewinsky would never have seen the light of day, at least not as a judicial matter. No court would have had occasion to assemble women from Mr Clinton's past, as Ms Jones's lawyers did in an attempt to prove a "pattern of behaviour" on his part. Mr Clinton would not have been required to testify under oath about his sex life, and Ms Lewinsky would have remained in obscurity. Neither would have misrepresented their relationship under oath; Mr Clinton would have had no need to try to tailor other witnesses' accounts - if he did.

Mr Clinton might still have found himself in difficulty from the combination of Ms Lewinsky's resentment at the ending of the relationship and the tape-recordings made secretly by her then colleague, Linda Tripp. These could have brought the relationship into the open and caused Mr Clinton grave political damage, especially as Ms Lewinsky had proof of the relationship in the now famous "semen-stained dress". The judicial aspect, though, would have been absent. Mr Clinton would have been judged in the court of public opinion, and may well have fared better.

A more complex question is whether Mr Clinton's decision first to deny and then to dissemble his relationship with Ms Lewinsky reflected his fear of the Paula Jones suit or his fear of personal and political embarrassment. Nothing that he has said suggests that his denial was designed primarily to affect the Jones case; rather the reverse. His chief fear seems to have been that the Paula Jones case could uncover an affair he desperately wanted to conceal.

Many have argued that if Mr Clinton had come clean in January with the sort of abject confession and plea for forgiveness that he offered at Friday's White House prayer breakfast, he would have disarmed his accusers and the Lewinsky case would have been no threat. Without the Paula Jones case, that is probably true. With the Jones case, however, the judicial aspect remains.

If, on the other hand, Mr Clinton had given a full and truthful account in that case, he would have been free of any perjury accusations and might have escaped accusations of witness-tampering. But he might still have been suspected of abuse of power if he tried to buy Ms Lewinsky's silence by arranging a well-paid job.

Even with the Paula Jones case proceeding and his own decision to conceal the relationship with Ms Lewinsky, the President might still have been in the clear, had Ms Lewinsky not agreed to change her testimony. That is what suddenly speeded up the case through August to this month's frenetic climax. If she had stuck to the denial she agreed with Mr Clinton in advance, the existence of the relationship would have been much harder for a court to prove. To judge by the Starr report, however, the circumstantial evidence was so strong, that - combined with Ms Tripp's tapes - it would have been persuasive.

Ultimately, Mr Clinton has a much earlier decision, which was entirely his own, to blame for his predicament: his decision to embark on, and then continue, a relationship with a White House trainee that broke many of the taboos of Nineties America: sex in the workplace, sex with an employee, sex with a far more junior colleague. Even if a young woman had walked into his office stark naked and pleaded "take me", commented one hardline (female) lawyer, Mr Clinton had a duty, as President, to send her smartly away, calling his security staff if necessary.

If only...

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Read Next
Former N-Dubz singer Tulisa Contostavlos gives a statement outside Southwark Crown Court after her trial  

It would be wrong to compare brave Tulisa’s ordeal with phone hacking. It’s much worse than that

Matthew Norman
The Big Society Network was assessed as  

What became of Cameron's Big Society Network?

Oliver Wright
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn