By Peter Baker
President Clinton said in an interview released yesterday that the judge's decision to dismiss the Paula Jones case was in the national interest and will liberate him to focus attention on important issues such as tobacco, education and Social Security.
"I feel now that I'm freer to keep doing what I'm supposed to be doing," he said. "It removes whatever obstacle this case would have been to my giving everything to this job for the next two years. Every hour, every minute I spend diverted on these questions is disserving the American people."
In an interview in this week's issue of Time magazine, Clinton said the ruling by U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright "exposed the raw political nature" of the long-running sexual harassment case and he again denied that he made unwelcome advances to either Jones or former aide Kathleen E. Willey. The president declined to accept any responsibility for his troubles and refused to talk about the criminal investigation by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
Still, the comments were the most extended public reaction offered by Clinton since Wright threw out the case last Wednesday. The judge concluded that even if he did make a lewd proposition in a Little Rock hotel suite in 1991, as Jones charged, such "boorish and offensive" conduct would not constitute sexual harassment under the law.
While in private, when he heard the news during his trip to Africa, Clinton happily chewed on a cigar and banged a drum, the president stuck to the more sedate public response favored by his advisers in the magazine interview, conducted on Air Force One on his flight back to Washington Thursday. White House officials believe the major reason Clinton has prospered in public opinion polls is that he has given the appearance of staying focused on substantive policy issues despite the cacophony of the political and legal threats surrounding him.
That Clinton chose Time to deliver that message came as no surprise to White House observers. Clinton and the White House have been furious at the magazine's main competitor, Newsweek, for its aggressive coverage of the Jones case, and have signaled they intended to retaliate.
Yet even as Clinton again stayed quiet on the details of the allegations against him, some of his former advisers publicly pressed him to finally address the unanswered questions involved in Starr's investigation of perjury and obstruction of justice connected to former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.
"I personally believe that now is a golden moment for the president," his former senior adviser, George Stephanopoulos, said on ABC's "This Week." "He should come forward now, do the press conference, say whatever happened with Monica Lewinsky. Nothing would do more to neutralize Ken Starr."
But Stephanopoulos has despaired that his former boss will do so. Asked the chances of Clinton following his advice, Stephanopoulos acknowledged, "About zero."
Instead, White House officials and allies were more interested in claiming vindication as they fanned out to the Sunday talk shows. White House communications director Ann F. Lewis said the Jones case trivialized sexual harassment and agreed that Clinton's alleged conduct would not qualify under as such law.
If Jones's allegations were true, "I would consider it bumptious," Lewis said on "Fox News Sunday." "But the key for me would also be whether or not it was ever repeated or whether it was continued."
Later on the program, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) decried that assessment. "I do believe after looking at all that's going on that this president could very well be a sexual predator," he said. "They are now redefining sexual harassment to the point that now I can grab a woman's breast as long as she doesn't say no. I have to back off if she says no and it's okay. I think that's just really sad."
During his Time interview, Clinton acknowledged the Wright ruling did not absolve him of the core of Jones's complaint that he dropped his pants and asked for oral sex while he was Arkansas governor and she was a state worker. Going to trial, he said, would have provided the opportunity to dispute that charge.
"If I were just a private citizen, Joe Six-Pack, I would have mixed feelings about not getting a chance to disprove these allegations in court," he said. "After having been through what I've been through, I would have wanted to put all my evidence before 12 of my fellow citizens. But I don't have mixed feelings as president, because having the case dismissed and putting this behind us is plainly in the best interest of the country."
As for Willey, who testified under oath that Clinton kissed and groped her against her will in the Oval Office suite in 1993, Clinton said, "The evidence there is also compelling that her story isn't true."
The president declined to respond when asked whether he bore responsibility for putting himself in situations that "seem reckless" and offered no comment on Starr. But he was willing to chastise the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously last year that the Jones case could go ahead despite Clinton's plea for a delay until after he leaves office.
"The court said this case would have no impact on the presidency except that I would play a little less golf or something," Clinton said. "I've done my best to make that come true, to think about it as little as I could. . .‚. But now we see why for over 200 years no one had any idea the president should be subject to a civil suit and believed that the chances were that if one was filed it would have an overwhelming political aspect to it."
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