By Lois Romano
After four years of ups and downs, Jones's roller-coaster ride has hit bottom. U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, in an unexpected and dramatic ruling, threw out her lawsuit. Five days later, Jones's husband, Stephen, the sole source of support for her and their two children, was abruptly fired as a ticket agent for Northwest Airlines.
One way or another, Jones, 31, is about to exit center stage after setting in motion a series of events that have threatened to bring down the Clinton presidency. Even if she successfully appeals Wright's April 1 ruling, the trial likely would occur after Clinton leaves office, greatly diminishing public interest in her.
Despite the thousands of pages of documents filed on Jones's behalf, and the media microscope she has been under since first leveling her accusations in 1994, Jones leaves the spotlight as she entered: an enigmatic figure whom polls show an overwhelming number of Americans view unfavorably.
Even now, Jones's motives remain murky, her own identity overshadowed by an incendiary spokeswoman and the high-profile conservative legal organization financing her suit. Mostly, there are contradictions: Her case has become a rallying cry for the right, yet her advisers portray her as naively apolitical. She said an apology from the president was her only goal, yet she split with her previous lawyers over divvying up the money in a settlement offer. Her story about Clinton's unwanted overture in 1991 has become more inflammatory in the retelling; the hand on the leg, for example, became two hands "running up my culottes."
Her friends say she struggles to make ends meet, yet recent reports have suggested that she has control of a legal defense fund that she dips into for her personal use. And she hardly seemed needy after her suit was dismissed when she was photographed wearing fashionable spandex and speeding away from her beach-side condo in her big Mercedes.
Still, dozens of interviews with lawyers, friends and advisers paint a portrait of a woman desperately trying to raise two preschool age sons in the middle of the mammoth political and legal war, a woman who had resigned herself to a lonely and tense existence in order to tell her story to a jury in Little Rock.
After Wright's ruling, the people closest to Jones thought she had lost her stomach for the fight, especially when her husband was fired. Distraught and disheartened, Jones told one friend she didn't see how she could put her life on hold any longer with a 5-year-old starting school later this year. She confided to others that she desperately wanted to move back to Arkansas to be near her family, but her husband, also an aspiring actor, was not ready.
Jones declined a request for an interview. But in recent days, sources familiar with her thinking say she has become convinced that she cannot achieve closure and move forward with her life unless she appeals Wright's ruling to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. This will likely happen late this week.
"She believes the truth is on her side," said a girlfriend who speaks to Jones regularly, but asked that her name not be used. "She doesn't want it to end this way."
Regardless of the outcome, Jones has indisputably had a historic impact on the Clinton presidency. The sensational charges leveled by this former Arkansas state employee have dogged the president for four years, led to lurid disclosures about his personal life and ignited a separate, ongoing federal investigation into Clinton's alleged Oval Office escapades and the steps he might have taken to cover them up.
But all this may be of little consolation to a small-town girl who, her allies still contend, was never after money or fame, just an apology from Clinton for allegedly dropping his pants and asking her for sex at the Excelsior Hotel in Little Rock on May 8, 1991, when he was governor of Arkansas.
"People who think it's just about money don't understand that this woman was genuinely offended and insulted by his behavior. It was almost a point of pride," said an acquaintance of Jones who has been involved in the case. "All he had to do was say he was sorry and it would have been over."
Her detractors snicker at the notion that her life was somehow damaged because of Clinton's overture, as she has legally claimed, and suggest that, rather, it may have been enhanced by the sleek makeover, cross-country trips, celebrity and legal defense fund that followed her allegations. They point to recent reports that she received $100,000 from direct mail fund-raising and used some of it for personal expenses such as new clothes and boarding her dog at a kennel.
One knowledgeable source close to Paula Jones said that, while she technically has control of her legal defense fund, all expenditures are discussed among her advisers. This source said less than $10,000 from the fund was disbursed to Jones for personal expenditures related to the case, such as a home computer, business clothes for court and the kennel for her dog when she traveled to court. The remainder has been -- and is being -- used for such expenses as lawyers to handle a subpoena of the fund's records, a private investigator and administrative costs, said the source and Donovan Campbell, the Dallas-based lawyer who heads Jones's current legal team.
And her friends insist her life has been anything but enhanced.
From the day she surfaced with her charges in 1994, she was effectively defined by her Democratic enemies as trailer park trash, a loose woman and a pawn of the right wing. Jones has been audited by the IRS. Reporters knock at her elderly mother's door, and one of her sisters describes her as a liar and a hussy to anyone who will listen. And even if Jones eventually wins big damages, she owes her previous lawyers $800,000.
"Is Paula really better off?" asked Campbell. "She has suffered three or four years of vicious attack-dog tactics. Yes, she is certainly better known than she was four years ago, but a lot of people don't like her. She and we get hate mail and death threats. If this happened to your daughter, would you think she was better off because she was on the cover of Newsweek?"
"She can't live her life. She can't make friends," said Daniel DiCriscio, her hairdresser and a friend. "It's as simple as that."
Despite the legal defense fund, her friends say that Jones has hardly any personal resources. She has been without transportation because the family has had one working car. The Mercedes, they stress, is 11 years old and just paid off, allowing the couple to repair another car broken down for two years.
Her husband Stephen was paid about $40,000 a year at Northwest, said one friend. Now that he's been terminated after 16 years -- for purportedly disregarding a posted notice about mandatory overtime, according to the airline -- their plight is even more precarious. "His wife's situation had nothing to do with" the dismissal, an airline spokesman said Friday. Stephen Jones said through a friend that he does not recall seeing the March 22 freeze-shift notice instructing employees to stay late and has filed a union grievance.
"I'm telling you she doesn't have anything," said an Arkansas girlfriend. "She uses the [fund] money for some expenses she would not ordinarily have. But she struggles like the rest of us day to day. They don't have money."
Jones has let it be known repeatedly that it was always an apology -- not the money -- that she wanted. Early in the case, she pledged to donate any proceeds from a favorable judgment to charity. And her camp strongly suggested that last summer's $700,000 settlement offer from Clinton, as well as the relationship with her previous lawyers, collapsed because the president was unwilling to issue an unequivocal apology.
But one source close to the previous attorneys -- Joseph Cammarata and Gilbert K. Davis -- said that while it is true money was irrelevant for Jones early in the case, her attitude changed when the tide seemed to be headed her way.
According to the source, discussions of the $700,000 settlement offer quickly deteriorated into dickering about how the pot would be divided. Davis and Cammarata agreed to a one-third cut, considerably less than they believed their agreement called for. But in return they asked for other means to recoup their losses, such as a percentage of any future book deals, or permission to write their own book when the case was over, according to the source. Jones refused.
"It was all about the money," said the source. The source also maintained that, at one point, it was the lawyers -- not Jones -- who were insisting on inclusion of a strong statement from the president redeeming her reputation. Jones's spokeswoman, Susan Carpenter-McMillan, whose lawyer husband negotiated with Davis and Cammarata, denies this account.
Ultimately, the deal unraveled, despite a plea to Jones from Judge Wright to settle. Upon withdrawing from the case last year, Cammarata and Davis filed an $800,000 lien on any proceeds generated by way of judgment or settlement.
Cammarata and Davis have remained publicly supportive of Jones. However, sources said the men were not happy when Carpenter-McMillan recently said on television that if Jones had accepted the $700,000 offer last summer, she still would have owed $100,000 to the lawyers.
"You would think, as the spokeswoman for Paula Jones, she would know the facts, yet she continues to spin with reckless abandon," said Cammarata. Said Davis: "I didn't know what she was talking about. Paula would have had no bill to us if we had come to terms."
When asked to explain what she meant about the $100,000 debt, Carpenter-McMillan said, "Only four people know about those negotiations" -- not including herself -- and declined to discuss it further.
One reason Jones seems destined to fade back into obscurity is that the public always viewed her harshly, even if polls suggested they believed much of her story. Women's groups were uncomfortably silent about her case. The revealing photos of her published in Penthouse, taken by a long-ago boyfriend, didn't help.
Jones knew all this, say her friends, but believed perceptions would change when she had her turn on the witness stand. Still, upon the advice of friends, she softened her look, started wearing her hair straight and highlighted, wiped off the thick makeup, acquired new business clothes and was careful not to smoke in public.
Despite Democratic attempts to place her in the middle of a "vast right-wing conspiracy," her inner circle appears to be quite small and eclectic, mostly people Jones met in the past year who were not acquainted before the case. It's unclear who has her ear at any given moment. The group includes her Dallas-based legal team, led by Campbell; Carpenter-McMillan; wealthy Pittsburgh businessman Bernard Werner, who set up her Web page to raise money because he believed "there was nothing out there supporting her"; hairdresser DiCriscio, who said he met Jones when she and Carpenter-McMillan "came in for a perm [and] I told Paula, 'Your look is very '80s.' "; her husband; and longtime friends Debra Ballentine and Pam Blackard, witnesses in the case.
Jones's closest friends insist she is completely apolitical, and both sets of attorneys back this up. In fact, sources say the first time she ever voted was in 1992, to cast her ballot for President George Bush -- or, more accurately, against Bill Clinton.
Cammarata and Davis, who represented Jones throughout 90 percent of the case, said they never discussed politics with her. Jones's initial announcement of the case at a conservative conference was a result of advice and bad judgment, not any type of a political statement, say her friends and lawyers. And they contend that she agreed to accept the conservative Rutherford Institute's offer to bankroll the case as a matter of expediency, not ideology.
Jones was raised poor and strict in the tiny farming town of Lonoke, Ark., about 25 miles from Little Rock. From the beginning she was described as a girl who was trying to escape the confines of a limited community and religious parents but whose ambition far exceeded her skills and education.
After high school, she attended secretarial school briefly and then held a succession of short-lived jobs: rental car clerk, saleswoman at Dillards, secretary at a pest control company. By March 1991, she had landed a low-level position with the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission (AIDC), a job that brought her in contact with then-Gov. Clinton during an AIDC conference.
In her deposition, she displayed an unvarnished anger at what she says happened when she met Clinton in his room in the Excelsior, and a determination to make him pay.
"Every time I look at this man on TV," she said, "I don't even look. I just turn it off because it brings back that terrible day of when I had to look at his private part, a strange man without me asking for it."
But Jones never filed a formal complaint against Clinton. Why, her detractors ask, would she do nothing for three years, then file suit in May 1994? The answer, they charge, is that once Clinton was president, Jones saw her chance at the brass ring; they claim she has embellished her story to catch that ring.
In a 1994 interview with The Washington Post, for example, Jones said that when she rebuffed Clinton, he told her to have her boss phone him if she got in any trouble for leaving the conference. In her November 1997 deposition, she added that Clinton had placed his hand on the hotel room door, and warned her to "keep this between ourselves," which she interpreted as a threat.
The evolution of her testimony, Campbell said, was in part tactical. "It is unwise for a plaintiff to plead every single fact in an initial filing. During the discovery part of the case, more facts come out. . . . She did not change her story."
In any case, a longtime friend insisted that Jones did not come forward in 1991 because "she didn't want to tell anyone ever. She was humiliated. We told her, 'Tell your boss, tell the police.' She said, 'No, I just want it to go away.' "
And it did, for a while. Jones married, bore a son (a second son is 18 months old) and moved to California before hearing about the now notorious American Spectator article in which state troopers alleged that Clinton used them to procure women for him. The story, which appeared in late 1993, suggested that a woman named Paula was one of his conquests during a Little Rock "reception." Debra Ballentine, to whom Jones had confided, brought the story to Jones's attention, and it was Ballentine who introduced her to her first lawyer, Danny Traylor.
"She just wanted a retraction at first," said the same friend. "There was no talk about suing. In her mind, she thought Traylor would just call the American Spectator and say, 'Hey, you have to take this back. It didn't happen. She said no to Bill Clinton.' "
Traylor never got the retraction. A few months later, Jones replaced him with Cammarata and Davis, who in May 1994 filed suit in federal court in Little Rock.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company