Whatever the motivations and merits of her lawsuit against Bill Clinton, Paula Corbin Jones now more than ever looks like a political instrument used by conservatives to embarrass the President. For them, though not for her, the case is a winner even if she loses, and especially if it goes to trial next May. Suddenly, it seems likely to reach that point, in part because Ms. Jones has been captured by extreme elements of the religious right.
The competent (and quite conservative) attorneys who had served until recently as Ms. Jones’ legal advisers resigned because she refused to settle. They felt their client was unduly influenced by her chief adviser, Susan Carpenter-McMillan, a longtime Republican activist and former anti-abortion leader in southern California. So the old legal team has now been replaced by a group that makes even Ms. Carpenter-McMillan look moderate.
The new spearhead of Jones v. Clinton is the Rutherford Institute, an outfit with a nondescript title and a radical agenda. Founded in 1982 by former associates of the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, Rutherford is an important legal-action arm of the religious right. Its name reflects the admiration of its founder, lawyer John W. Whitehead, for the teachings of the 17th-century Scottish theologian Samuel Rutherford, who believed that the literal interpretation of Scripture provided the only legitimate basis for temporal government. Among those who have held seats on its board of directors was the late R.J. Rushdoony, who espoused Christian Reconstructionism, the modern expression of Samuel Rutherford’s theocratic authoritarianism.
In more mundane terms, the institute is the successor to the Moral Majority Legal Defense Fund, where Mr. Whitehead worked as an attorney before founding Rutherford. The co-founder of Rutherford was Jerry Nims, who had served as president of the Moral Majority and other Falwell groups. When the Moral Majority was collapsing in 1989, largely due to insolvency, Mr. Falwell declared that its work would be continued by other organizations, including Rutherford.
Since then, Rutherford has devoted itself to what it terms protection of religious freedom, and what others might regard as razing the wall between church and state. Some of its litigation involves the usual arguments over Nativity scenes on public property, but some of it reveals Rutherford’s rather constricted view of faith and liberty. For instance, Rutherford’s directors consider civil rights for homosexuals as oppressive to Christians.
A few years ago, the institute provided legal counsel to a preacher who was fired from the San Francisco Human Rights Commission after he called homosexuality “an abomination against God” and hinted that he agreed with the Biblical punishment of stoning sodomites. In another case, Rutherford filed suit on behalf of an unwed, unfit mother with a history of substance abuse and a long rap sheet who had put her child up for adoption but changed her mind when she learned that the adoptive parents were a gay male couple.
What Rutherford has not taken up as a pet cause, until now, is the problem of sexual harassment. In his announcement on Oct. 1 that his organization would take on the Jones case, Mr. Whitehead said that “our involvement … stems from the fundamental principle that no person-not even the President of the United States-is above the law.”
Admirable sentiment, except that the Supreme Court settled this weighty constitutional issue last summer. The only question left for Ms. Jones is whether to settle or litigate, and her new friends insist they aren’t interested in negotiating.
Whether that is in Ms. Jones’ interest is difficult to say. Her evidence, such as it was, seems to be falling apart. (A doctor’s examination of the President, according to U.S. News & World Report , shows that he doesn’t bear any “distinguishing characteristic” on his nether parts, as she claimed in a 1994 affidavit.) But it clearly is in the interest of the Rutherford Institute’s longtime ally Jerry Falwell, who has been making propaganda war on the Clinton White House through the sale of scurrilous videotapes for the past few years, and making a lot of money by doing so. The Virginia holy man’s first and most infamous production, The Clinton Chronicles , also marked the video debut of Ms. Jones and her accusations.
There is always the possibility that Ms. Jones will win a court victory and a million-dollar judgment next year, with book and movie deals to follow. There is at least as much chance that she will suffer the same shame and disgrace she seeks to inflict on the President, and win nothing of value in return. At that point, their mission accomplished, her conservative allies will simply move on to the next direct-mail scam.
What has always seemed curious about Ms. Jones is that she has never sought any redress from The American Spectator , the right-wing magazine that first aired the humiliating story of her supposed encounter with Mr. Clinton in a Little Rock hotel room. She insists that the story was false; she wants an apology, and she seems to want money, too. Why haven’t any of her savvy friends told her to go after The Spectator , which could provide both? As her spokesman Ms. Carpenter-McMillan admitted the other day, “That’s a good question.”
You don’t need a lawyer to know the answer: politics.