Peter Pringle's America: I need a legal fund, too

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The Independent Online
FROM A distance you may weep or snigger at the idea of a sitting US president creating a public piggy bank for himself, but Bill Clinton is not a rich man and quite simply, he needs the money. The head of state is beset with huge personal legal bills. He must defend himself against charges of sleazy land deals in the Whitewater affair and the sexual harassment suit brought by Paula Jones. Either he goes broke, or he passes the hat.

At first, I was appalled at the thought of the President's tin cup, or his wooden box, at the exit for state dinners, but then I began to realise it was not such a bad idea. Maybe, in fact, it sets a fine example that all the American people should follow. The way Americans sue anybody any time, a lot of people need a legal defence fund. On the advice of my closest counsel, I may soon be setting up my own.

Look at it this way, explained my lawyer. Suppose, just suppose, someone was walking down the back stairs of your apartment block instead of taking the elevator, and tripped on the coconut welcome mat outside your back door and broke a hip bone. You know how much that could cost you? A million dollars.

I need a defence fund more than most because I live in New York, where my chances of being hit by a stray bullet, suffering a heart attack from being stuck in an elevator, being bitten by a rat or breaking my incisors on a stale bagel are greater than if I lived anywhere else in the world. To bring a suit, or to defend myself against one in this city, means using up a life's savings. Definitely, I need a legal fund.

As my lawyer pointed out, I could be involved unwillingly in some ugly contretemps not even of my making, and find myself in court. If America is the land of the liability suit, then New York is 'sue city' . People are either suing, being sued or about to be sued most of the time.

Each morning my daughter rides her bike to school down Fifth Avenue while I huff behind. For a Dad, it's part of being a New Yorker, like having a psychiatrist and a nutritionist - and a lawyer. Because there is no room to park the bike at school I wheel it back home.

The other day I was walking back home from my daily mission when a woman began gesticulating wildly at the bike and yelling, 'That's too small for you.'

'It's not mine,' I yelled back.

'So, whose is it?'

'It's my daughter's, dummy,' I replied, involuntarily adopting the insouciance of a true New Yorker.

Thus encouraged, I was ready the next time it happened, when another woman pointed at the bike and bellowed indignantly, 'Where's the child?'

'What child?' I said.

'The child who should be on the bicycle.'

'She's in school, dummy.'

'Don't you call me a dummy,' she yelled back, threateningly.

Suddenly, I realised this could have been the mistake that condemned the family savings. However much you may feel irritated by another New Yorker, you should never get into a situation where they are saying to you: 'Don't call me a dummy.' The next thing you know there will be an altercation, and if you are not in the hospital or the morgue, you will be in court.

According to city statistics broken legs, twisted arms and battered heads run to dollars 552,000, dollars 546,000 and dollars 6.2m respectively in damages, a third of which automatically goes to the lawyer. Which is another good thing about the Clinton legal fund. It underlines the outrageous sums charged by lawyers - dollars 400 an hour in the President's case. The Clintons earn dollars 293,000 a year and their net worth is dollars 1.6m, but the White House estimates their legal fees for Whitewater and the Paula Jones suit will run at about dollars 2m a year.

So how, you may ask, does a poor little Arkansas plaintiff like Paula Jones afford her fees? She has a legal fund, of course. But who donates?

Well, the other day she was in Manhattan modelling for her money. She was wearing a pair of black 'No Excuses' jeans and a white T-shirt with the logo 'I see this as an opportunity to take an unfortunate situation and turn it into a positive action' - which pretended to be a social comment about her harassment case but was, in fact, advertising.

She has been awarded dollars 50,000 by the jeans manufacturers for being in the forefront of an important women's issue. Half of this will go to a battered women's home in Virginia, and the other to pay Paula's team of no fewer than three lawyers.

Which brings me back to the Pringle Legal Defence Fund. Should the fund ever be set up to protect me against my fellow New Yorkers, I pledge to retain no more than one lawyer at any one time. And I will never promote a product, of course. I recognise this is an ethically sensitive area in which people may try to influence what I write in return for a donation. But I will not accept any donations from any person that I have written about, am writing about, or may write about at some future date. That seems to rule out anyone except me and my family. Actually, come to think of it, I have been known to write about myself and my family. Oh well, pull in the coconut welcome mat.