Took Enormous Toll
By Dan Balz
The ruling will significantly complicate the ongoing work of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, raise new problems for congressional Republicans contemplating impeachment proceedings against the president and give Clinton's allies fresh ammunition in their campaign to discredit the Starr investigation.
Even before the ruling, there was evidence that Clinton was winning the political war. Now Wright has provided the president with the kind of clear-cut legal victory he has never enjoyed before, and as the next and perhaps conclusive phase of the battle to save Clinton's embattled presidency begins, Starr too will find himself on trial.
But victory for Clinton yesterday came at an enormous price. For a woman who may never see the inside of a courtroom in her battle against the president, Jones has inflicted considerable and potentially lasting damage on Clinton, and her lawsuit has had an indelible impact on the American political system and on other institutions in American life.
Jones became the catalyst for a much larger legal and political struggle; in the public arena, it was difficult to know where the Jones suit ended and Starr's investigation began. Her lawsuit provided the grist for the most serious allegations facing the president, those of perjury and obstruction of justice. Her accusation against Clinton moved from being a sideshow to the center of Starr's inquiry.
Without Jones, there would be no Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern whose alleged affair with the president along with a similarly unproven claim that the president or his friend, Washington attorney Vernon Jordan, may have urged her to lie about it remain at the heart of Starr's Washington investigation.
Without Jones, there may have been no Linda Tripp, the woman who secretly taped her conversations with Lewinsky and who later was simultaneously talking to Starr and the Jones team on the eve of Clinton's deposition in the Jones case.
Without Jones, there would be no Kathleen Willey, whose claim that the president made an unwanted sexual advance against her in the Oval Office suite was turned into a prime-time television moment of high drama, only to become clouded by conflicting information, like so much else that has involved the president's personal life.
And without Jones, there would not have been the flood of depositions dumped into the public domain over the past few weeks accusing the president of sexual adventures with other women, from a former Miss America to an old Arkansas classmate to the woman whose story first endangered Clinton's political career in 1992, Gennifer Flowers.
Starr's team continues to examine the information that has been developed from the Jones suit, attempting to determine whether the president and his allies have engaged in a pattern of obstruction both in that case and in the longer investigations into Arkansas land deals, missing legal records, FBI files that found their way into the White House, the dismissal of the White House travel office and other matters.
These are serious and still unresolved issues. Starr's office was quick to issue a statement yesterday asserting that Wright's ruling would have no direct effect on its investigation. But the ruling from Little Rock will put even more pressure on Starr to conclude his investigation and quickly report to Congress and the country.
The public long has seen Starr as politically motivated. A decision to press ahead with evidence developed from the Jones case may subject him to additional criticism that politics, rather than legalities, are at the heart of his inquiry. In dismissing Jones's lawsuit, Wright may have damaged the credibility of Starr's investigation.
Congressional Republicans now face an even larger problem. Even as they prepare the machinery for possible impeachment hearings, many Republicans are nervous that the public has no appetite for such proceedings. Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said yesterday's ruling "makes it much more difficult and risky for the Republicans to take up impeachment from evidence that emerged from the Jones case."
Whatever vindication the president and his White House team felt yesterday, however, they understood two things: He is not yet out of danger legally and he has sustained serious damage personally from the weeks of pounding he has taken about his private behavior.
It is important to note that Wright's ruling said nothing about the factual dispute over what happened between Jones and Clinton in the Little Rock hotel room in 1991, only that Jones could not meet the legal threshold to win a claim of sexual harassment.
Clinton's past personal life long has represented a major political liability. His job approval ratings may remain high and the public may have expressed its repeated impatience with the continuing stories of Jones and Lewinsky. But the public doesn't believe he has told the truth and doesn't believe he is a man of strong moral values. For a president as concerned about his legacy as Clinton is, the damage to his standing because of his private behavior may be devastating, for it now threatens to become part of that legacy.
Democrats and Republicans said yesterday that, no matter what the outcome of the Jones case, it will be difficult for Clinton ever to restore his reputation. "There's been so much of it [allegations about private behavior] that nobody doubts it any more," said Republican pollster Robert Teeter. "It's kind of left him a joke. It's made him less relevant. It's diminished his moral authority."
A Democrat who asked not to be identified said, "I suspect he's been irreparably harmed."
But Clinton isn't the only one harmed by what Jones touched off. Jones first told her story at a conservative political event in Washington in 1994, and Clinton's antagonists have used her as a means of attacking the president ever since. The fact that Wright dismissed Jones's charges without a trial may only reinforce the belief of many Americans that Clinton's conservative opponents will seek to use anything to try to bring him down and may subject them to more scrutiny.
The Jones lawsuit also raises disturbing questions for the media, which in the past two months have seen standards weakened in pursuit of salacious and unproven allegations that in the past would have demanded far greater proof before publication. The Jones lawyers are partly to blame, for putting so much material into the public domain, but the media too have shown almost no resistance to running with a story no matter how sensational the charges or questionable the sources.
The Supreme Court has emerged with its reputation tarnished as well. Last year, the justices ruled unanimously that the Jones case could go forward while Clinton was in office, concluding that the trial would be only a minimal distraction. The political, legal and media circuses of the past few months demonstrated how wrong they were.
One analyst said yesterday that Judge Wright's decision in the Jones case may sweep away some of the sensationalism of recent months and refocus Starr and the media on the serious questions about Clinton's behavior that remain to be answered. That may be wishful thinking, given the kind of political warfare that has been waged between Starr and the White House and the fact that the stakes for both are still high.
In a whole series of ways, the political system has been harmed by the Jones lawsuit. The warfare it has touched off has disrupted the public agenda, diminished political life in the eyes of the American people and diverted attention away from issues of real concern to the public. Judge Wright's ruling will not by itself do much to reverse all that.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company