Bill’s Forgotten Woman-I Give You Paula Jones

WASHINGTON-She was always an inconvenient woman; she is now fast becoming the forgotten woman of the affair. She was not down here for the Senate trial, but I found myself thinking about her as I headed home from the drone. She’s not making the scene, although her act of defiance created the scene. Paula Jones is not on the last-minute list of witnesses the impeachment trial prosecutors want to call, the way Monica Lewinsky is. Her case, her sexual harassment claim, has been edited out of the articles of impeachment, persists in them only in a ghostly afterlife in testimony about testimony, in accusations of lies about lies. Her case has vanished from the judicial system in an ambiguous settlement, exists now only in a kind of virtual state akin to that of a catalyst that triggers a chemical reaction but disappears from the resultant compound.

And besides, she’s considered somehow too disreputable, too déclassé: Although she was the one who spurned the sleazy advances Monica provoked and welcomed, she didn’t dress in Donna Karan, and therefore she’s the one condemned as trashy.

So she’s become a kind of unwelcome guest at the media feast, a phantom unspoken presence in the Senate chamber as the arguments drone on. It’s not fashionable to speak of her, or to take her claim seriously; it never was. It was so easy to dismiss her: First it was her nose, and then it was the nose job, and always there was her nasal twang. Then it was her allies: a woman with no means of support taking on the most powerful man in the world, and she actually got help from people who opposed him! Quel scandale ! The New York Times actually front-paged last Sunday, Jan. 24-as if it were a terrible, sinister secret-the not-so-new revelation that her lawyers got help from other lawyers who didn’t like the President! The President has the entire Justice Department carrying water for him, and this woman’s lawyers accepted advice from other lawyers! The Times has got the damning billing records to prove it! Now we know! Was it a sinister scandal that Anita Hill got help? Only a media culture that reflexively delegitimized Paula Jones’ case, her claim, her very being from the beginning, would consider this a front-page scandal.

Ms. Jones’ case, her claim that Bill Clinton exposed himself to her, finds only an echo in Dale Bumpers’ meretricious defense of Mr. Clinton, which, by the way, was perhaps the single most overrated utterance in the history of public oratory, the ecstatic praise for which afterward seemed a desperate effort to validate the indiscriminate, unquestioning buildup the media gave Mr. Bumpers beforehand as an exemplar of Senate oratorical greatness. It was a speech whose concatenation of corn-pone clichés, a speech whose self-congratulatory exhibitionism (“I practiced law in this little town for 18 years.” Who cares?) demonstrated the shockingly low standards for “greatness” that subsist in the U.S. Senate chamber. It was the Emperor’s New Clothes of political oratory.

But her case, her claim, did have a faint echo in one of Mr. Bumpers’ overblown asseverations, his assertion that he can vouch for Bill Clinton’s essential propriety: “The President and I have been together hundreds of times at parades, dedications, political events, social events. And in all those years and in all those hundreds of times that we’ve been together, both in public and in private, I have never one time seen the President conduct himself in a way that did not reflect the highest credit on him, his family, his state and his beloved nation.”

It was an attempt to address the underlying uneasiness about Mr. Clinton that has kept the case alive. The uneasiness about the possibility that, in addition to being a familiar kind of womanizer, he is something much uglier: the kind of boss who exposes himself to underlings.

That’s the subtext of Mr. Bumpers’ assertion that in all those “hundreds of times we’ve been together,” Mr. Clinton has behaved himself: In other words, because he didn’t take his dick out and wave it in Mr. Bumpers’ face and tell him to “kiss it” during their “hundreds of times together” (as Ms. Jones alleged Mr. Clinton did to her), Mr. Clinton must be a paragon of moral virtue whose every act reflects the “highest credit” on him. But Mr. Bumpers is a great orator, everyone says so, and Ms. Jones is what, if not trailer trash, then so easy to snicker about, her claim so easy to disparage. So easy for the power women among the Clinton apologists (but not all feminists, fortunately) to dismiss. Even if the story Ms. Jones tells were true, they’ve told us, it wouldn’t matter because powerful male bosses should be able to expose themselves to powerless female employees without penalty so long as they put it back in their pants when it’s unwelcome.

And then there’s the insinuation, sometimes whispered, sometimes implicit in what is written: Because she wore less than elegant miniskirts and didn’t have a chic hair-person on call, she must have invited it, she must have wanted it, she wouldn’t have gone up to that hotel room unless she was somehow hoping the Governor would, in one way or another, expose himself to her. Over and over, elaborate interpretations of her motives are imputed, substituted for a skeptical interpretation of Mr. Clinton’s denials.

Because it’s-apparently in these circles-less important to be for strict enforcement of sexual harassment laws than to prop up Mr. Clinton-and to receive, for being props, those lovely White House luncheon invitations and those confidential heartfelt chats with the First Lady. Who gets respect as the First Victim while the woman who may be the President’s real first victim (the first one to dare to speak out) is turned into a non-person. She’s been assiduously “disappeared,” as they say, from the arguments of the Clinton defenders, in a shell game exemplified by the endlessly repeated mantra that the whole impeachment imbroglio is a puritanical inquisition into an act of “consensual sex”-thus making the scandal all about Ms. Lewinsky. And eliding into nothingness Paula Jones, whose claim was for an act of non-consensual sexual harassment. And in another triumph of sophistry, you hear over and over again in the Senate trial-the President’s lawyers keep repeating with repellent disingenuousness-that a Federal judge had dismissed Ms. Jones’ claim as having “no legal merit.” Ignoring the fact that the judge didn’t dismiss her claim as untrue . Far from it, she dismissed the case on technical grounds because Ms. Jones couldn’t prove she was denied promotion for resisting Mr. Clinton’s advances-a strained, weakening interpretation of the sexual harassment law shortly thereafter repudiated by a Federal appeals court, a dismissal that Mr. Clinton’s pro-feminist defenders should have raised an outcry over. But instead his defenders try to twist the dismissal on technical grounds into a denial of the truth of the story Ms. Jones told.

Even Clinton opponents seem to deny, dismiss, the significance of this awkward woman and her claim. There were few moments of eloquence exhibited by the House impeachment prosecutors (and let me make clear, for those who missed my previous dispatch from Washington, that I hold no brief for the House impeachment prosecutors, who are ineradicably tainted by their refusal to repudiate Representative Bob Barr’s and Senator Trent Lott’s connections with the white-supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens, the CCC. As I put it last week, “The CCC is the stained dress of the Clinton opponents.”) Still, in one of those few moments of eloquence, Representative Lindsey Graham asked the right question, but he based it on the wrong premise. Mr. Graham’s premise was that the Senate needed to pay close attention to the nature of Mr. Clinton’s equivocations under oath (over such issues as whether he asked Betty Currie to hide the presents under her bed) “because you need to know who your President is .”

Absolutely right: That is the real question, “who the President is”-or the deeper question. But it’s not a question that’s going to be answered by the evidentiary issues before the Senate in the impeachment trial, by whether or not the equivocations he’s charged with in the articles of impeachment fit the definition of high crimes and misdemeanors in the Constitution. (I’d say they probably don’t. Although it’s not a slam-dunk either way, and I must admit that if the President in the dock were Richard Nixon and the charges-perjury and obstruction of justice-were the same, regardless of their origin, I’d probably be arguing Nixon ought to be thrown out for them. And I think those Clinton supporters who don’t recognize the double standard they’re using to give Mr. Clinton a pass are neglecting the real danger that in cutting so much slack for Mr. Clinton’s behavior now, they’re cutting slack as well for the next President they don’t like-making it possible for the next Richard Nixon, say, to get away with murder.)

But we could parse the equivocations of Mr. Clinton over his consensual (though pathetically exploitative) sexual relationship with Ms. Lewinsky forever, and it won’t tell us anything about “who the President really is.” Not something we don’t already know. We already knew that Mr. Clinton was a compulsive womanizer who lied and tried to hide his affairs from his wife and his enemies with weasel words in sworn testimony. And we may, some of us, think that’s not such a big deal compared with the puritanical sexual intolerance and the inexcusable tolerance for racism of his most fanatic opponents.

Yes, we already know he’s a slob, but Ms. Jones’ claim might tell us something different, something darker, about “who the President is.” Whether he’s not just a womanizer but a sexual harasser, a predatory boss who exposed himself to an employee and then used threats to silence her (“You’re a smart girl; let’s keep this between ourselves”).

He’s apologized for the womanizing repeatedly and tearfully-once the stained dress forced him to admit it, anyway; until then, the plan was to “just win,” to lie and smear the woman in question. But he hasn’t apologized to Paula Jones. Perhaps it is because he doesn’t owe her an apology, perhaps because it never happened the way she said it did. But it could be he won’t apologize because her claim is true, and because it tells us more about “who the President is” than he can afford to let us know. It’s the one thing that might make even his most pathetically loyal apologists and enablers uncomfortable. Because enabling a womanizer is kinda, sorta understandable, but enabling a sexual harasser makes the enablers less fellow victims of the unfortunate fallout from a human failing than co-conspirators with a predator.

Determining the truth or falsehood of Ms. Jones’ claim could tell us something we don’t know for sure about “who the President is.” And it is here that we find the real analogy between Mr. Clinton’s plight and Nixon’s impeachment crisis. Ms. Jones’ claim occupies the same originary status in the Clinton crisis as the break-in order question does in the Nixon Watergate scandal-it’s a question of who the President really is.

The Nixon break-in order question: For those who missed the column I devoted to this disgracefully unexamined historical controversy ["The Great Unsolved Nixon Mystery: Did He Order Watergate Break-In?" Jan. 11], you might still recall that the articles of impeachment drawn up by the House Judiciary Committee in 1974 against Nixon did not charge him with ordering the Watergate break-in, but only with covering it up afterward. The smoking-gun tape that drove him from office did not link Nixon to a break-in order, but to the cover-up afterward. And in all his confessions and mea culpa s ever after, Nixon admitted to the cover-up afterward but denied to his dying day that he ordered the break-in. Historians have tended to accept Nixon’s denial as an essential element of “who the President was”-too sophisticated to order a thuggish crime like that, merely caught up in the cover-up afterwards to keep his loyal subordinates from further embarrassing him (as I pointed out in my Jan. 11 column, new tapes undermine that denial).

Did Nixon come clean with us in finally admitting the cover-up, or did he take a dirty secret, the break-in order-a defining lie-to his grave? The answer to that would tell us a lot more than we can say for sure about who Nixon really was . Similarly, Mr. Clinton has confessed scores of times to lying or, anyway, misleading the American people and various judicial proceedings about his affair with Ms. Lewinsky, but he will, I suspect, to his dying day deny he exposed himself to Ms. Jones. He might be telling the truth, for all we know, but we don’t know. And the truth might tell us more than we know-or, for some, more than they want to know-about who Bill Clinton is.

I won’t say it’s determinative, but it’s at least interesting that in dealing with this claim, the origin of the whole tortured impeachment imbroglio (though it’s been erased from the actual articles), Mr. Clinton exhibits the same wounded, ostentatious affrontedness that Nixon did in denying he ordered the Watergate break-in. Nixon was shocked, shocked when he heard about the break-in, he maintained from beginning to end. And Mr. Clinton was so shocked and outraged about the injustice and persistence of Ms. Jones’ claim that he’s made it his justification for lying about Ms. Lewinsky.

I’m not making this up: There’s an amazing moment in Mr. Clinton’s August grand jury testimony in which he explained to the grand jurors that he lied (or “was misleading”) about his affair with Ms. Lewinsky in his deposition in the Paula Jones case because he was just so gosh-darn steamed at Ms. Jones’ persistence and the way the Jones legal team was pursuing her claim for political purposes-when they knew just how weak their case was, “when they knew what our evidence was”-that he wasn’t going to give them any truthful collateral information to help persecute him over this falsehood. Of course, he doesn’t come out and say Ms. Jones’ claim was false; he just says the case was weak -the kind of quibble we’ve learned to pay attention to from a President who’s so punctilious about “what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” (Imagine how much fun ridiculing this line liberals would be having if Nixon tried to foist it on us.)

Mr. Clinton, more than anyone in the world (aside from Ms. Jones), knows whether the case was weak or strong on a factual basis-he knew and knows whether he exposed himself to Ms. Jones. But he didn’t choose to deny that ; he didn’t express outrage over the falsity of that claim but rather-in another triumph of weasel wording-outrage over the weakness of the case. I particularly love that Nixonian touch-“they knew what our evidence was”-the insinuated smear that he’s got some bombshell evidence that would blow her case out of the water or blacken her reputation, evidence that somehow never showed up, did it? Evidence that didn’t stop him from paying Ms. Jones off in a panic when he thought an appeals court might reinstate her case.

It is in this answer, I’d suggest, that Bill Clinton exposes himself over the question of whether he exposed himself. Exposes his Nixonian essence. I think if it were Nixon in the dock, every liberal now defending Mr. Clinton would seize on an answer like that and call it a typical Tricky Dick prevarication, a kind of meta-lie about lying. But because it’s Mr. Clinton, who’s “right on the issues,” he gets a pass.

Whether Clinton defenders actually buy this story-the fact that he lied about Monica kinda, sorta proves he was telling the truth about Paula-or just opportunistically adopt it for the sake of the cause, is not clear. But in a certain sense, they’ve adopted a version of it in diverting attention from the lie Mr. Clinton may still be telling to the one he confessed to when they repeat ad nauseam he’s only lied about “consensual sex.” They’re implicitly asking us to believe that although we know he lied about Gennifer Flowers, lied about Monica Lewinsky and made a habit of lying on just about every other difficult question about his life until the equivalent of a stained dress showed up, nonetheless, in this case, this one time, this one most damaging claim about him, in this one case that might really tell us who Bill Clinton is , he’s telling the gospel truth.

Well, it certainly makes it more convenient to think that way, more convenient for the Clinton defenders, anyway, to frame it as a case of puritanical inquisition into a “consensual sexual affair” and the lies told to hide it. And they’d be right, if all we’re judging is whether Mr. Clinton should be impeached on those grounds, the Paula Jones story is not “material.”

But if Ms. Jones is telling the truth and has been all along, and he’s been lying about it from the beginning, it is material to who Mr. Clinton is. It’s not the only thing he is; there’s an admixture of idealism and passion for justice in his nature-especially about race. But it may be the one thing he’s concealing about who he is.

I’m not saying I know for a fact Ms. Jones’ claim is true, or that it will ever be proven true. It is one of those much-deplored “he said-she said” questions, isn’t it? (Those who invoke “he said-she said” somehow suggest that because we can’t prove who told the truth that it doesn’t matter who told the truth.) And maybe it will turn out that Ms. Jones is the one who’s been lying all along. Maybe she pursued these allegations, subjected herself to obloquy and ridicule as “trailer trash,” suffered the sneers of the fashion magazines who prefer to put the chic First Lady on the cover as the real role model for the women of America. (The Tammy Wynette “Stand by Your Man” role she once so snootily deplored.) But if Ms. Jones is telling the truth, I’d argue that she is a far more admirable role model than Hillary Clinton, that she’s a brave woman who suffered an injustice and took on the most powerful man in the world to vindicate her dignity.

As for myself, when it comes to trying to decide who’s telling the truth on this originary question-on the one that might reveal or define who the President really is -I have as much faith that Mr. Clinton is telling the truth on his defining question as I do that Nixon was telling the truth about his. Let’s face it, that’s who Bill Clinton really is: He’s our Nixon .