WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's private lawyer rushed last night to head off an angry wave of criticism from women's groups by vowing not to attack Paula Corbin Jones' sexual past in disputing her sexual misconduct lawsuit against the president.
"It is not my intention to go after Paula Jones' sexual history," the lawyer, Robert S. Bennett, said in an interview. "I do intend to go after her reputation on issues of veracity on the allegations in the complaint."
Earlier, in another news interview Bennett also commented, "I am not a fool."
Yet Bennett and his client -- who was re-elected in 1996 with major support from female voters -- have been called much worse than that during the past three days since Bennett discussed legal tactics he might pursue in preparation for a trial.
Feminist groups, among the most loyal supporters of Clinton, reacted angrily to Bennett's comments on a talk show Sunday morning. Questioned about plans by Jones' lawyers to seek evidence of a "pattern" of behavior by Clinton, Bennett replied: "You know, it's a two-way street. We've thoroughly investigated this case. If Paula Jones insists on having her day in court and her trial, and she really wants to put her reputation at issue as we hear, we are prepared to do it."
Bennett did not deny last night that those comments had caused a political problem for the president, and said he was willing to take the heat. But he made clear that he is not abandoning the option of aggressively questioning Jones' credibility should she testify at a trial that Clinton had damaged her reputation by making a sexual advance to her in 1991.
One news account reported that the Clinton defense team questioned a man who said he had had an intimate relationship with Jones. The man was brought to Washington for the questioning, part of a wide-ranging investigation Bennett and his associates are making into potential witnesses.
Whatever role such a witness might play, the defense team's questioning of the man drew harsh reactions from some of Clinton's feminist supporters, who suggested that such evidence would probably not be admissible in court because of the legal protection provided in the Violence Against Women Act, and that Bennett's tactics appeared to be designed to intimidate Jones.
Leaders of women's groups also stressed publicly that nothing has been more sacrosanct to them than the proposition that a victim's appearance or sexual history should not be used in defense of sexual harassment or assault.
"Many people have worked hard and long at keeping the sexual histories, the personal intimate histories of individuals involved in such cases out of court argument," said Anita Perez Ferguson, president of the National Women's Political Caucus. "I think Mr. Bennett has a little bit of catching up to do."
Several feminists -- including some who work inside the White House -- pointed out that the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which Clinton signed in his first term, expressly limits the use of an alleged victim's sexual past in both civil and criminal cases in federal court.
"I guess what [Bennett] needed is what they call 'continuing legal education,' " one female White House aide said yesterday.
Some White House officials had complained that regardless of the legal merits of his argument, Bennett had put the president in an impossible political predicament.
But if there was a lack of coordination between Clinton's legal and political advisers in the wake of the Supreme Court's 9-0 decision last week allowing Jones' case to go forward, many legal observers doubted that Bennett would have articulated a strategy without first clearing it with the president.
Bennett had discussed the case with the president the night before his TV appearance, and there were no indications that Clinton had lost confidence in Bennett.
The first hint yesterday that the White House was seeking to distance itself from any strategy of attacking Jones' sexual past came when Clinton's spokesman, Mike McCurry, volunteered that Clinton still supports the Violence Against Women Act.
Asked what that meant, McCurry suggested reporters read the law. Later, he said:
"The president's spokesman said that [Clinton] supports the provisions of the Violence Against Women Act that he signed. That's a significant comment."
Pub Date: 6/05/97