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Mike McCurry was in Paris when he got the page from the White House press office. "Re: Supreme Court & Paula Jones," his beeper said.
It was the day after Memorial Day 1997, and the president was at the Elysee Palace to meet with Boris Yeltsin and sign an agreement to clear the way for the NATO alliance to expand into Eastern Europe. McCurry was puzzled by the page, having forgotten about the case, which had temporarily faded from the news. He called Washington and was told that the high court had held unanimously that a sitting president was not immune from lawsuits over personal behavior. Jones's suit, now three years old, could go forward. For that day's news cycle, Clinton diplomacy had been trumped by Clinton sleaze.
The president was studiously low-key, as if he were still teaching constitutional law back in Arkansas. "It must be an interesting opinion if it's 9-0," he told a small group of aides. "Let's find out what the reasoning is." In an instant, the staff's attention had turned from nuclear diplomacy to the politics of sexual harassment.
Rahm Emanuel, one of Clinton's top assistants, called the president's lawyer, Robert Bennett. Clinton wanted Bennett to handle all public comment about the case, Emanuel said. That was fine with Bennett. If there was one thing he didn't need, it was a bunch of White House aides who didn't know what the hell they were talking about popping off about the Jones case. They knew nothing about his strategy and might well say something that could hurt his client, legally or politically.
Bennett conferred with Clinton after the president's meeting with Boris Yeltsin. The unanimous ruling was a major disappointment. To be sure, their earlier strategy delaying the embarrassing lawsuit until after the 1996 election had succeeded. Bennett would never say that publicly, but it was true. Now he needed the flexibility to reach an out-of-court settlement if that seemed the best course. He gave an interview to CNN and, after notifying Emanuel, went on "Larry King Live" that night.
The reporters in Paris had no crack at Clinton all day. They were barred from his photo op with Boris Yeltsin. They asked McCurry if the court ruling was distracting the White House. Everyone figured it was, but there was no way McCurry would say so. "I believe the opinion appears to have distracted all of you, but the president continued to conduct the nation's business," he said.
The Paula Jones ruling led all the networks, bumping the NATO agreement to secondary status. CBS's Rita Braver reported that White House officials were "shocked" and were "trying to put an optimistic spin on the situation."
McCurry felt that reporters often made up this sort of stuff. No White House aide would tell the press they were stunned and flabbergasted and felt the trip had been ruined, he thought. Still, McCurry knew the correspondents would be clamoring for a comment from Clinton. They had to deal with the story, he told his White House colleagues. Perhaps Clinton could briefly talk to the press pool on Air Force One on the way to his next stop, in the Netherlands. But the other senior staffers overruled McCurry.
"We're on our trip," Emanuel said. "Let's keep this away from the president personally."
The battering continued in the morning papers. "Sense of Siege Deepens," said the New York Times. USA Today ran a huge picture of Paula Jones with the headline: "Sex Trial Possible in Clinton Term." The story said that Jones's lawyers would "start subpoenaing Clinton and at least 10 women he allegedly had trysts with," including Gennifer Flowers. The NATO meeting got a small headline.
Something else besides a press frenzy was going on here. On talk radio, in Internet gossip columns, in office corridors, people were again debating whether Clinton had dropped his pants in the presence of Jones, a subordinate, in Little Rock's Excelsior Hotel and suggested she kiss part of his anatomy. The story had become a national punch line. Clinton was providing America with its tabloid entertainment. The reporters, while pretending to be interested mainly in the lofty constitutional principles at stake, welcomed the chance to get down in the gutter. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd put into play the latest chatter about what Jones meant by Clinton's "distinguishing characteristics" with a reference to "those rumors about that bald eagle tattoo."
The next day, Clinton met with European Union officials at The Hague, trailed by a small press pool. Ron Fournier of the Associated Press was under orders from his bosses not to ask Clinton about Paula Jones at the news conference. AP executives were nervous about having their man raise some domestic controversy at a foreign press gathering where the wire service got the first question. The pool members decided that the UPI man should ask the question at the photo op. But he didn't, and when Fournier tried shouting it, Clinton kept on walking. "They've gotta get something on this," McCurry told Clinton afterward.
In the pool van, dubbed Wire One, the reporters groused to McCurry that they had had no shot at Clinton. Fortunately for them, the president's car pulled over to the side of the road so he could shake some hands. The reporters raced out of the van and tried to get Clinton's attention from behind a metal gate.
"We didn't get a chance to talk to you, Mr. President!" Fournier shouted.
Clinton, still hobbled by an injured knee, ambled over with his cane and fielded the inevitable question. He said he was concerned about the ruling's effect on "future presidents" but would not go beyond that. "I saw Mr. Bennett's comments this morning, or heard them, on CNN," he said, deferring to his counsel. "I don't have anything to add to that."
As he walked away, Clinton asked McCurry: "How'd I do?"
"Perfect!" McCurry said.
The low-key approach was working fine, Bennett felt, until that lunatic Dick Morris called and announced his intention to discuss the case on television. Morris, who had left the Clinton campaign the year before after becoming embroiled in a scandal involving a prostitute, was trying to become a commentator.
"I'm going out, can you give me some talking points?" Morris asked.
"Really, Dick, should you be doing this?" Bennett said, horrified.
But Morris would not be dissuaded. He couldn't stand being out of the limelight. Morris told the Fox News Channel that he had urged Bennett during the campaign to delay the Jones case until after the election. Even if Clinton won, he believed, being acquitted of sexual harassment was hardly the best way to begin the campaign. Morris knew that White House officials would be riled by his remarks, but he didn't care. He didn't work for them anymore. He was launching a punditry career and had to speak his mind. Fox called Bennett for comment, but he didn't return the call. This was exactly the sort of thing he wanted to avoid.
One of the reasons Bennett charged $495 an hour was that he was known as a media-savvy attorney with Brooklyn street smarts who could defend his high-profile clients Caspar Weinberger, Clark Clifford, Dan Rostenkowski in the court of public opinion. Lately, however, his relations with many reporters had gotten testy. He seemed defensive about the fact that he had been paid $892,000 in the Paula Jones case, only to lose nine-zip in the Supreme Court. He knew that he didn't hold the high moral ground in seeming to argue that the president was above the law and could not be sued while in office. But it had been necessary to combat what he saw as essentially a political assault on Clinton. He whispered to reporters that he had ample evidence of Jones's allegedly promiscuous background, describing it in graphic detail and vowing to use it if necessary. At other times he grew confrontational with the journalists themselves.
"I've talked to your colleagues about you," he snapped at one reporter. "They think you're unfair." He told another reporter she was incompetent and could not understand legal papers.
The White House decided that Bennett should go on both "Meet the Press" and CNN's "Late Edition." He spoke to Clinton on Saturday night. "You tell the American people that this did not happen," the president said. Bennett told his client that he planned to float the idea of a payment to charity as a way of settling the case, and Clinton agreed.
Bennett said on the two Sunday shows that Clinton would never apologize for something he didn't do, but might be willing to donate $600,000 or $700,000 to charity to settle the matter. He also delivered a not-so-veiled threat. If Paula Jones "really wants to put her reputation at issue, as we hear, we are prepared to do that," he told Tim Russert. Word leaked to the New York Times that his office had just flown one of Jones's former boyfriends to Washington and taken his deposition. It was a spectacular blunder. By threatening to pounce on Jones's sexual history, the president's lawyer seemed to be suggesting that an alleged victim of an unwelcome proposition may have been a willing participant.
The next day, Paula Jones graced Newsweek's cover for the second time in six months. Karen Breslau, the magazine's White House reporter, had warned McCurry about the cover story, and he let her have it. Newsweek is too vested in this story for its own good, McCurry snapped. This is more about selling magazines than covering legitimate news. You've become infected by the tabloid culture.
Reporters were quick to ask McCurry whether Clinton might pay the $700,000 from his personal funds or from insurance. He wasn't biting. Paula Jones was one of the subjects he didn't touch. "I don't have anything to add to what Mr. Bennett had to say yesterday," he said.
Bennett found himself under fire for his talk show performance. The Times accused him of "threatening on national television to ruin Ms. Jones's reputation by bringing up her sexual history." Patricia Ireland, head of the National Organization for Women, charged him with using a "nuts and sluts defense." Maureen Dowd called Bennett "the latest Clinton henchman to slime himself." Bennett felt he was being unfairly savaged. In his next life, he mused, he wanted to come back as a New York Times editorial writer so he could smack people around without worrying about the facts. He would just as soon keep everyone's sexual history out of the case. But Jones's lawyers, he felt, were making an issue of her supposedly pristine reputation and threatening to depose a long line of women who had reportedly slept with Clinton. Was he supposed to stand by silently, just because his client was the president of the United States? They were trying to humiliate Bill Clinton. He had to make Paula Jones feel she would pay some price for these hardball tactics.
There was another aspect to the case that only Clinton's closest confidants understood. Clinton insisted privately that Jones was a liar and a tool of the right-wing hate machine. He wanted vindication, to expose her false claims in court. He didn't want to settle, and Bennett was merely following his client's wishes.
But Bennett still didn't grasp how much trouble he was in, that he had come off like a break-your-kneecaps kind of guy. The normally sure-footed attorney wasn't accustomed to this sort of widespread denunciation. He was the newest White House spokesman to make himself the issue. White House aides were furious, convinced that Bennett had behaved like an idiot.
Bennett was flying back from a quick West Coast trip. He called Rahm Emanuel. Don't undercut me, he said. Don't get out there and pull the plug on me. I'm preparing to deal with this.
Bennett launched an extraordinary media counteroffensive, insisting that of course he had no desire to dig into Paula Jones's sexual background (notwithstanding the leak about deposing her ex-boyfriend). He spoke to the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Washington Times, NBC, AP, Wolf Blitzer, Charlie Rose, Ted Koppel. By scrambling to compensate for his original error, Bennett had kept the sexual harassment story in the news for another 10 days, a story the White House desperately wanted to vanish. "We're in a world of hurt on this thing," McCurry told John Podesta, the deputy chief of staff. But McCurry avoided talking to Bennett. They had clashed during the campaign over this lawsuit and clearly didn't like each other. Bennett was prickly about controlling the presentation of the president's case. McCurry felt it best to lay low.
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