WASHINGTON — It is very hard to believe that Paula Jones is making the whole thing up. (I've tried, I've tried.) But it's not hard to believe she's making a lot of it up.
She might willingly have engaged in a sex act, and enjoyed it. That is Trooper Ferguson's version of the episode. At the other extreme, she might have casually rejected a casual proposition. Both versions, or sundry variants, seem more likely than Mrs. Jones' tale that the governor of Arkansas dropped his pants and invited her to proceed.
So Bill Clinton may face an exquisite dilemma, worthy of a psychological thriller: He cannot tell the true story, even if the true story would reveal him as legally innocent. He can't say what really happened in that hotel room, because that would involve admitting that he did indeed invite a young woman to a hotel room, with mischief in mind. Almost everyone thinks the hotel-room meeting itself, at least, did occur. But Mr. Clinton must somehow negotiate this treacherous maze without explicitly conceding the point. Or so he and his advisers presumably believe.
Well, it's been done successfully before. Clarence Thomas, remember, did not attempt to defend the behavior alleged by Anita Hill, or even to give and defend his own modified version of those events. In fact, he ostentatiously agreed that what Anita Hill accused him of was heinous in every particular. But he denied point- blank, under oath, that what she described, or anything like it, had ever occurred.
For that reason, it is strange to hear some folks argue that the real lesson of the Paula Jones affair is that allegations about a public man's private life -- be he Clarence Thomas or Bill Clinton -- have no proper role in the public debate. (A couple of especially fair-minded conservative pundits have devoted entire columns recently to detailing the charges against Bill Clinton that they feel should not sully public discussion.) Or they say that standards for defining sexual harassment are out of control. And, in either case, they argue that Paula Jones is a liberal chicken come home to roost.
Yet, at the time, Clarence Thomas and his supporters didn't say that what Mr. Thomas did was nobody's business, or perfectly acceptable. They just said Anita Hill was lying.
Anyway, no one can seriously maintain that Mrs. Jones' story, if ++ true in every particular, would have no relevance to an assessment of Bill Clinton as a public man.
First, it would be illegal, and rightly so. The label ''sexual harassment'' may be applied these days to situations that don't deserve it, but surely exposing yourself to a subordinate and asking for sex is not one of them.
Second, legality aside, it is gross behavior that suggests a real character problem. Joe Klein, writing in Newsweek, describes this problem as ''promiscuity'' (with public policy implications). I would describe it as a cynical willingness to use other people (with even more obvious public policy implications).
Third, if Mrs. Jones' story is true, Clinton has lied about it, which makes him less believable about other matters.
Unfortunately, these same considerations apply, to a lesser degree, to the more likely scenarios as well.
For years, since the controversies of the late 1970s about Edward Kennedy, I have been writing that politicians can't have it both ways about their so-called ''private life.'' If they regard their adulteries as of no public importance, then they shouldn't -- parade their wives and children along the campaign trail either. But by broadcasting a certain picture of their private lives, they put the issue ''in play,'' and open themselves up to legitimate inquiry about whether that picture is accurate.
During the 1992 campaign, Mr. Clinton came as close as any national politician has ever come to honesty in these matters. He said on ''60 Minutes,'' in essence: I've sinned, but I've stopped. I don't pretend to a perfect family life, so don't judge me a hypocrite for my imperfections. And he found more public understanding than many predicted. The Paula Jones episode falls on the safe side of the ''60 Minutes'' divide. But Mr. Clinton, through his lawyer, has denied point-blank that anything at all occurred.
Perhaps he'll get away with it, like Clarence Thomas. It's hard to blame him for trying. Even some Clinton opponents find the whole business so distressing that they sincerely wouldn't mind seeing it all waft away on a cloud of minor deceit. As a Clinton supporter, it's tempting to think that another small lie or two added to the pile accumulating in Washington every day matters very little compared with the prospect of a wrecked liberal
The cynicism of Paula Jones and her handlers is infuriating. She suffered no ''emotional distress'' and they don't care a whit about sexual harassment. Their motivation is a poisonous stew of greed, political calculation and personal hatred of Bill Clinton. If one lie justified another in return, Mr. Clinton undoubtedly would have several coming to him, free of charge. But lies by the likes of Paula Jones -- or even Clarence Thomas -- don't justify more lies by the president of the United States. If he stonewalls and gets away with it, I'll have, I admit, no worse than mixed feelings. But if he would step forward and tell the true story, I'd feel a lot better.
TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.