Decision Shifts Public's Focus To Issues of Clinton Character
By Kevin Merida
President Clinton lost an opportunity yesterday to remove one of the nagging legal controversies hovering over his presidency. The Supreme Court's ruling that Paula Corbin Jones can pursue her sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton while he is still in office keeps questions about the president's character percolating in the public arena.
Until resolved, the Jones case could be, in the words of one scholar, like "water dripping on a stone," detracting from Clinton's governing mission.
"It reopens and underscores and focuses on and exacerbates the whole question of this president's trustworthiness," said Robert Dallek, a Boston University history professor who is just completing his second volume of a biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
"My God, what a distraction," said Charles O. Jones, a University of Wisconsin political scientist. "It seems predictable with this fellow that whenever things are going good there is a great big pothole in the road."
The court's decision comes at a time when Clinton's political fortunes appear to be rising. He is currently in Paris trying to demonstrate his leadership in expanding the NATO alliance. He recently concluded a historic budget agreement with the Republican-controlled Congress. The economy is cruising steadily along. And public opinion polls show a majority of Americans have confidence in his leadership.
The Paula Jones ruling threatens to disrupt that, at least temporarily.
"It's obviously going to create a great brouhaha for a while," said James Carville, a sometime adviser to the president, "and then it will settle into a lawsuit. There will be a lot of discovery, back and forth, arguments. . . . I think (A), it is a distraction; and, (B), it is a distraction that they can deal with."
The Clinton White House has had plenty of practice maneuvering through political land mines. There were the firings of travel office personnel, the handling of confidential FBI background files of prominent Republicans and, more recently, the ongoing investigations into the Democratic Party's fund-raising practices and the possibility that Hillary Rodham Clinton might be indicted in the Whitewater probe.
"If there's one guy who's shown he can live with distractions, it's the president," Carville said. "It's sort of his forte."
But unlike the controversies over Whitewater and the Democratic fund-raising maze, Paula Jones's story is much easier for the general public to understand. The former Arkansas state employee alleges that in 1991 then-Gov. Clinton had her summoned to a Little Rock hotel room where he exposed himself asked her to perform a sexual act. Clinton has denied the incident happened and there are no first-hand witnesses, so it is essentially her word against his.
For most of the period since she first went public with her allegations at a Feb. 11, 1994, news conference at a convention of Clinton-bashing conservatives in Washington, Jones's allegations were treated with suspicion. She was losing the public relations war. But in recent months, there have been new media examinations of her case that have tended to cast the credibility of her argument in a more favorable light. And some analysts said yesterday's unanimous court decision would only help her efforts and damage Clinton's in the battle over the truth.
"She clearly has a better platform now to make her case either legally or publicly," said David Demarest, former communications director for President George Bush, citing anticipated new interest from the media.
Not only is the momentum against Clinton in this case, but managing the fallout could prove more difficult than it might in other types of political catastrophes, according to Demarest.
"There is a rule in public relations called 'the worst first.' You try to get the worst information to the public first so you can turn the story. One of the problems in legal cases is because there is information that a plaintiff has that hasn't necessarily gotten into the public domain, the defendant is at a real disadvantage from a public relations standpoint."
Because the event can be so hard to manage, Demarest said, sometimes the most appealing choice is to settle out of court. So far, however, there is no evidence to suggest the president and his lawyers are considering such an option.
Demarest said if he were advising the president, "I would want to keep it out of the White House. I wouldn't want morning staff meetings discussing this case and wouldn't go down the road of providing information on how much time the president is spending on the case."
However White House aides decide to handle the matter, they will be playing into a news climate already crowded with allegations of sexual scandal.
The Aberdeen military rape trial has dominated headlines for weeks, more recently replaced by Air Force pilot Kelly Flinn's efforts to avoid court-martial over adultery charges. There too are allegations that NBC basketball announcer Marv Albert forced sex from a woman and accusations that Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II's (D-Mass.) brother, Michael, had sex with his teenage babysitter.
"All of a sudden," said the University of Wisconsin's Jones, "the president is on the same level as these folks. I would think that is not a happy morality context in which to be put."
But even some Republicans think Clinton is coated with his own version of Teflon.
GOP consultant Craig Shirley said he doubted that yesterday's court ruling would have much impact on Clinton's presidency. The public already has a sense of his moral deficiencies, Shirley said, and the absence of the Cold War, combined with the acceleration of the information age, have reduced the American public's fascination with the White House.
"The presidency is a very shrunken position as opposed to 10 to 15 years ago," Shirley said. And for many people, what matters most is their own pocketbook. "If the economy is okay, there is a large segment of the population that says, 'I don't give a damn what he does after 6 p.m.' "
Shirley, who handled media relations for the Conservative Political Action Conference, where Jones unveiled her allegations three years ago, said yesterday's court ruling may knock a few points off Clinton's approval rating and generate "a couple nights of embarrassing yucks with Letterman and Leno. But is this the beginning of the roller coaster down? I don't think so."
Staff researcher Barbara J. Saffir contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company