Jones v. Clinton Special Report
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Paula Jones/Reuters
Paula Jones had no comment for reporters as she left her home in Long Beach Thursday. (Reuters)

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Many Had Hand in Case's Escalation

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 3, 1998; Page A33

In the beginning, almost no one took Paula Jones seriously, and in the end, her sexual harassment claims were dismissed as without legal merit. But in the intervening four years, her lawsuit against President Clinton made history, an unprecedented battle that often brought out the worst in the American legal and political systems.

It took more than Paula Jones to transform this case into what it became. Clinton and his past behavior contributed. So did the courts, which let the case go forward when many warned of its disruptive consequences. So did the lawyers for both sides, whose aggressive tactics and public performances guaranteed a high level of hostility.

But others also contributed. The president's most virulent opponents and fiercest advocates fed on one another's antagonisms and helped stoke the intensity of the struggle. And the media waded into areas of private behavior, more often with enthusiasm than with embarrassment.

"It's a departure from anything we had as recently as 30 years ago," said presidential historian Robert Dallek. "What accounts for it? There has been a kind of relaxation of the moral standards for the public discourse. The more media you have, the more sensational it becomes."

Jones's attorneys say they will likely appeal Wednesday's ruling by U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright dismissing the suit, but legal experts say they face high hurdles in having the decision reversed. It now falls to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr to determine what the real legacy of Jones's lawsuit will be for Clinton and the country.

But as Starr presses forward with his investigation, a look back at the tangled history of the Jones case reveals a legal battle that escalated into one of the most celebrated lawsuits of the day.

It was perhaps inevitable that the case would assume the proportions it did, although few would have predicted it when the American Spectator published an article about Clinton's private life in late 1993 that included a reference to a 1991 encounter in a Little Rock hotel room involving a woman named Paula.

Two months later, the woman named Paula, who said she was outraged at the suggestion in the magazine that she had done something improper with then-Arkansas Gov. Clinton, emerged to tell her own story.

But the forum she chose guaranteed that this would be no ordinary matter. Jones appeared at the annual gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference, a meeting that regularly attracts most of the president's conservative opponents. She was escorted to the event by an Arkansas lawyer named Cliff Jackson, who spent much of 1992 trying to destroy Clinton's presidential candidacy by claiming Clinton had dodged the draft as a young man.

Jones's claim that Clinton had proposed a sexual act, which she declined to describe, drew only modest attention. But her accusations became a cause celebre in conservative circles, and long before there was a lawsuit, there was a political crusade.

Even before the lawsuit, even before there was the first news conference, there were also talks of settlement. Jones's first lawyer, Daniel Traylor, approached a Little Rock businessman with presumed Clinton connections and said Jones would say nothing publicly about the incident in return for an apology and help in finding a job.

Whether any settlement was ever really likely is something only Clinton, Jones and their lawyers can know, but settlement talks became a recurring theme of the four-year fight.

There were intensive talks in the days just before Jones, then represented by Virginia attorneys Gilbert K. Davis and Joseph Cammarata, filed her lawsuit in May 1994. There were more talks again in October 1994, and once again in the summer of 1997 after the Supreme Court ruled 9 to 0 that the case could proceed to trial. There were talks that resulted in one set of Jones lawyers leaving the case and another set taking their place last fall. And there were apparently some kind of settlement talks as late as six weeks ago. At one point the two sides may have been only $200,000 or so apart on the issue of money, a seemingly insignificant amount to the president to eradicate a major irritant to his presidency or to Jones, who now has walked away with nothing.

But the settlement talks may have been just a sideshow to the political warfare and the escalating legal confrontation. As conservatives continued to pound away at the president, Jones received help from several unexpected corners.

A lengthy examination of the case by Stuart Taylor in American Lawyer in November 1996 helped convert what had been viewed as a mostly partisan attack into a more serious legal charge. Two months later, Newsweek magazine put Jones on its cover, reinforcing what American Lawyer had done and giving Jones's charges credibility to a national audience.

Even more important was the Supreme Court ruling in May 1997. The initial strategy of Clinton's private attorney Robert S. Bennett, said one former White House official, was to delay the lawsuit until after the 1996 election, and on that front he succeeded. But the Clinton forces lost a major battle to have the case set aside until after he was out of office.

In December 1994, Judge Wright ruled that Clinton was immune from lawsuits while in office and said the Jones trial could not proceed until he left the White House. But in May 1997, the Supreme Court unanimously disagreed, saying a trial would be but a minor distraction to the president.

Bennett's strategy shifted from delay to destroy: He was determined to win the case, and his aggressiveness drew heavy criticism, from Clinton's friends as well as Jones's advocates.

A change in Jones's legal team in the fall of 1997 marked a shift in tactics on her side as well. Davis and Cammarata were out, replaced by a team of lawyers from the Dallas firm of Rader, Campbell, Fisher and Pyke.

Jones's new lawyers launched an aggressive strategy to scour the country for other women who were said to have been involved with Clinton to see if those who allegedly cooperated were rewarded and those who did not were discriminated against.

The aggressiveness of the opposing legal camps, the stakes involved in the high-profile campaign, and the salaciousness of the material in the case virtually guaranteed the tawdry spectacle that followed.

Clinton's political opponents bear some of the responsibility for what came next, but the allegations against him likely would not have received the kind of attention they did were it not for the president's questionable past. Although the president had his notable defenders, chief among them being strategist James Carville, other Democratic allies were muted to silent, wary of going too far in speaking up on the president's behalf.

By the time Clinton gave his deposition Jan. 17, the media attention had reached epidemic proportions. He was, after all, the first president to give a deposition in a civil suit against him. By then, the president's private anatomy had been discussed by his lawyer on national television. It was hard to imagine worse, but there was more to come.

Over the final two months of the legal battle, the two sides traded increasingly nasty legal briefs. Bennett's briefs ridiculed Jones's claims in language that seemed as a much designed for the world of sound bites as for Wright's private reading.

The Jones camp went further. Rather than answering directly, her lawyers used the legal exchange to dump hundreds of pages of depositions alleging Clinton's involvement with other women into the public domain.

On Wednesday afternoon, the case came to a sudden and unexpected end. "There are no genuine issues for trial in this case," Wright wrote in her decision. The case that had consumed the country was, as it turned out, not good enough for the courts.

Staff researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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