Account of her encounter with Gov...

PAULA CORBIN JONES'

May 12, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

PAULA CORBIN JONES' account of her encounter with Gov. Bill Clinton in a Little Rock hotel in 1991 is sordid and saddening.

If what she said happened is true, the president of the United States is revealed as a vulgar man who held women in contempt. It would be not so much a case of workplace sexual harassment as a gross example of a powerful man treating a powerless woman as a plaything. A Hugh Hefner of the governor's mansion instead of the Playboy Mansion.

That is if it happened. She says it did; he says it didn't.

The way to resolve such matters when one party charges she has been damaged and another denies it is to go to court. Even in a sordid case like this; even when the accusation is bizarre and the accused is the president of the United States.

But not now. President Clinton has enormous responsibilities. Those include literally the life and death of men and women who serve under him as commander in chief. He doesn't need this distraction, and neither does the rest of the country.

I am not saying that the president is above the law. Justice Byron White said in 1982 that to give a president absolute immunity from civil suits for his official acts would be "a reversion to the old notion that the King can do no wrong." I agree.

(But for the record the majority of the Supreme Court in 1982 did not agree. It ruled presidents cannot be held civilly liable for their official acts. White wrote in dissent.)

I think giving a president absolute immunity from civil suits for acts committed before he became president would be an even worse reversion to un-American notions of regal irresponsibility and immunity.

But in a case like this one, the time to try it in court, if it goes that far, is later. Three years from now, or seven, when Mr. Clinton does not have awesome responsibilities from which he should not be diverted.

As The Sun noted in an editorial yesterday, Mrs. Jones waited three years before suing, and most of that period came after Anita Hill raised every woman's sensitivity to the need to and ability to fight back against the sort of thing Mrs. Jones says Bill Clinton did.

If it was really important to her, she should have acted sooner, before he became president. Having now filed suit to qualify before the statute of limitations expired, Mrs. Jones is guaranteed her claim will be adjudicated. Surely she can wait longer for justice to be done in a courtroom. She, her lawyers, his lawyers and the federal judiciary all ought to be able to work that out.

* * * *

Some of the reporting and commentary on Bill Clinton's sex life has put it "in context," by noting that other recent presidents -- John F. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Franklin D. Roosevelt -- also had illicit affairs.

Jack Kennedy's amorous history was somewhat comparable to Bill Clinton's, but not Ike's or FDR's.

Monday: Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd and Kay Summersby.

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