In a nation whose public discourse has turned pornographic and puerile, the “politics of personal destruction” is almost universally deplored-unless, of course, the target is Bill Clinton. Many of the people infuriated by stories that have tarnished the reputations of Congressional Republicans such as Bob Livingston, Dan Burton and Henry Hyde, relish and promote such attacks on Mr. Clinton. Destroying Mr. Clinton’s reputation was the true purpose of the Paula Jones lawsuit, as her supporters always knew and as the plaintiff’s husband once admitted in an unguarded moment.
As the Senate ponders how to dispose of impeachment, the effort to ruin Mr. Clinton through allegations about his private life continues unabated. It matters no more today than it did in the past that such allegations have no bearing on the loftier issues of perjury and obstruction of justice.
Among the least inhibited politicians of destruction is House majority whip Tom DeLay (although he whines piteously whenever his friends are exposed). Fearing that Senate majority leader Trent Lott might prefer censure to an embarrassing trial, Mr. DeLay has urged senators to examine certain sealed materials regarding Mr. Clinton before they vote. Those materials reportedly concern a 20-year-old rape charge against Mr. Clinton that the alleged victim has denied; none of the supposed corroboration has been subjected to public scrutiny, let alone cross-examination. That doesn’t trouble Mr. DeLay, a constitutional purist who clearly feels that the Bill of Rights doesn’t apply to his political enemies.
While the rape canard circulates, another old charge against Mr. Clinton is being revived by the Drudge Report , the Star tabloid and the New York Post . A Little Rock prostitute named Bobbie Ann Williams apparently has claimed again that the President is the father of her 13-year-old son.
The history of this story provides a primer in the politics of personal destruction, as practiced by certain Republicans. Ms. Williams-or someone claiming to be her-was paid to talk in 1992 by the Globe , another supermarket tabloid. Mr. Clinton’s adversaries seized upon her account as a potentially devastating weapon in that year’s Presidential election. Republican officials in Arkansas tried without success to find an attorney who would file a paternity lawsuit on Ms. Williams’ behalf as a publicity stunt. At the same time Peter Smith, a Chicago investor and G.O.P. moneyman who later paid two state troopers to talk about the Clintons, tried to interest reporter David Brock in publishing Ms. Williams’ story as well. (For unscrupulous conservatives, the fact that she and her son are black no doubt added a titillating racial frisson .)
Mr. Brock wisely passed, for the same reason that no lawyer would file a paternity claim: There was no proof beyond the unsworn testimony of a drug-abusing prostitute. The story remained dormant (except for a fictionalized version in Joe Klein’s Primary Colors ) until early last year, when Ms. Williams was included in lists of alleged Clinton paramours that accompanied coverage of the Monica Lewinsky affair and the Jones lawsuit. One newspaper that printed Ms. Williams’ name was the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette , in an article that appeared Jan. 28, 1998.
The next day, strangely enough, a woman identifying herself as Bobbi Ann Williams (with a slightly different spelling) appeared in the Democrat-Gazette newsroom to demand a retraction. She looked like the woman whose photo had appeared in the Globe , and she said that her sister, a crack-addicted prostitute with no children, had sold the tabloid a phony story. On Jan. 30, a brief article appeared in the Democrat-Gazette , reporting that Ms. Williams had “denied … that she ever slept with President Clinton or told a tabloid that she did.”
There the matter rested, until laboratory data about the President’s DNA-prepared as proof that his semen was on Ms. Lewinsky’s dress-appeared in a supplement to the Starr report. Since then, various tabloid journalists have vied to purchase DNA from Ms. Williams and her son, an auction reportedly won by Richard Gooding, an enterprising Star reporter.
By comparing the Starr report data with DNA tests on Ms. Williams and her son, Mr. Gooding hopes to prove Mr. Clinton’s paternity. Even if the results are positive, a possibility that cannot be discounted, it remains to be seen whether anyone else will be permitted to conduct an independent examination of the “evidence.” (After the Star bought the Gennifer Flowers tapes, it never allowed anyone to test the originals for tampering.) And Barry Scheck, the law professor and leading expert on genetic forensics, says that without tests on other men with whom Ms. Williams had sex 13 years ago, the results will provide no final proof of paternity.
Meanwhile, powered by tabloid money and partisan animus, the politics of personal destruction proceeds unabated. Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine, is excoriated daily for encouraging its harmful effects on our political culture. And no doubt his forthcoming account of Republican peccadilloes will provide still another occasion for breast-beating and soul-searching. But the pundits and politicians who find Mr. Flynt’s behavior so deplorable have no problem controlling their outrage whenever the President is in the bull’s-eye.