By Barbara Vobejda and Thomas B. Edsall
NOW President Patricia Ireland said her office was deluged with calls Monday and Tuesday from activists in state and local chapters, almost all of whom argued against filing a friend-of-the-court brief in the Jones lawsuit.
That, combined with opposition from the organization's 50 state coordinators and its national board, which met here over the weekend, convinced the group not to weigh in on the appeal.
"This is a classic of hard cases make bad law," Ireland said in an interview yesterday. Not only is the case too politically charged, she said, but it is weakened by the trial judge's ruling that Jones had not proved she had been harmed.
"We are also disinclined to work with the disreputable right-wing organizations and individuals advancing her cause," Ireland said, because of their "long-standing political interest in undermining our movement to strengthen women's rights and weakening the laws that protect those rights."
The announcement yesterday was the latest twist in a controversy over whether NOW and other women's groups have, for political reasons, shied from criticizing Clinton for his alleged sexual misconduct in the Jones case. Critics, particularly conservative groups, have said that the silence from these women's organizations was inconsistent given their stance against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and former senator Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), when they were accused of sexual harassment.
Barbara Ledeen, executive director for policy at the conservative Independent Women's Forum, offered her assessment of NOW's decision not to enter the case: "Democrats one, women zero." Ledeen said NOW leaders "backed themselves into a corner and managed to expose their own hypocrisies: Are they really for women or are they only for Democratic women, only for women who toe their line."
Some conservatives and Republicans suggested that one of the reasons NOW did not take on the case was that such an action could damage its fund-raising.
"Probably most of their members are very supportive of Bill Clinton," said Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster. "If they were to take a public position very critical of Clinton, it would cross pressure" their donor base.
NOW has been a leader in fighting sexual harassment and has filed amicus briefs in other cases, including one argued yesterday before the U.S. Supreme Court. But Ireland and a number of other leaders of women's organizations spoke out strongly for the first time against Clinton after former White House aide Kathleen E. Willey described in a television interview her account of being kissed and groped by the president.
"If it's true, it's sexual assault," Ireland said in a CNN interview at the time. "Now we are talking about, really, sexual predators and people who in positions of power use that power to take advantage of women."
Ireland said the NOW board deliberated much of the past weekend over whether it should file an amicus brief on Jones's behalf, but the strong consensus was that the case was too weak.
Still, the board wanted to gather opinion on the matter from its members, prompting Ireland on Monday to announce on ABC's "Good Morning America" that NOW would be consulting with its chapters around the country.
"So for the last several days we've been calling, faxing, e-mailing and, more than anything, answering the phone," she said. Calls were as much as 10 to 1 in opposition, Ireland said.
Kathy Miller, president of the Philadelphia chapter of NOW, said her office had also been flooded with calls from its members opposing involvement in the Jones suit, and she relayed that sentiment to the national office. "The response from the chapters was quite quick," she said.
Kathy Rodgers, executive director of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is independent of NOW, said her organization may still file legal papers supporting Jones.
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