Playing politics by sexual means

January 23, 1998|By Philip Terzian

WASHINGTON -- On the evening of President Clinton's deposition in the Paula Jones case, he and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton had been scheduled to go to dinner and the theater. At the last minute, however, they canceled their plans.

Mrs. Clinton subsequently explained to a radio interviewer that she had occupied herself that day by fixing up odds and ends, straightening out some White House closets and otherwise distracting herself from what must have been an embarrassment. It was no great surprise, therefore, to learn that when the president returned after six hours of questioning about his sexual life, under oath, he and Hillary Rodham Clinton would choose to avoid the limelight.

An assumed adulterer

The first lady has been a trouper, so to speak, on the matter: It must be very painful to know that the nation generally assumes her husband is a routine adulterer, and is divided only on whether it makes any political difference. She told the same radio interviewer that while she would not comment specifically on the Jones lawsuit, she worried that such legal irritants prevented her husband from doing the important work of being president.

This is a familiar theme in such circumstances and lately has been taken up by Mr. Clinton's admirers. On one television chat show, Georgetown law Professor Paul Rothstein, with rare passion in his voice, pleaded with both sides in the case to do the ''patriotic'' thing and settle the matter before trial.

Mr. Rothstein's concern was not so much political as aesthetic: He did not make the argument that Mr. Clinton's full attention to his work is vital to the peace of the world; but he did suggest that the public character of any courtroom drama would strike a mortal blow against national dignity. Days, if not weeks, of testimony about Mr. Clinton's career as a philanderer -- complete with lurid details -- are too awful to contemplate.

Indeed they are, but it is difficult to imagine an alternative. Any pretrial settlement would presume Mr. Clinton's culpability, and he has sworn under oath that Ms. Jones' claim is without merit.

It is interesting to note that the president's official attitude has undergone a subtle transformation. In the beginning, he and his minions insisted Ms. Jones was a liar, intent on mortifying Mr. Clinton for political purposes. Now, slightly less confident, he professes ignorance: He has no recollection of meeting Ms. Jones in that Little Rock, Ark., hotel room 6 1/2 years ago. Failed memories are a hallmark of the Clinton White House, but this posture does give the president some wiggle room.

A pretrial settlement might conclude that while the president doesn't remember doing anything, he is sorry for anything he might have done. This could send Ms. Jones away, and leave Mr. Clinton's reputation, such as it is, intact.

Unfortunately, I suspect that Ms. Jones, who was besieged by autograph-seekers in a restaurant the night the Clintons hunkered down in the White House, won't buy it. She wants public affirmation that she had agreed to meet then-Governor Clinton for blameless reasons, was shocked and offended by his conduct, and consistently has been maligned and slandered by the president's partisans. She does not want Mr. Clinton merely to feel her pain; she wants him to publicly acknowledge his behavior and apologize.

Wanted: a rational world

The weakness in Ms. Jones' case is the weakness of sexual-harassment litigation in general. I have no doubt Ms. Jones is telling the truth -- other women have testified, under oath, to such a Clinton pattern of conduct -- and there is no question that Mr. Clinton's behavior was appalling. But Ms. Jones should have slapped him across the face, left the room, told her friends and left it at that. As far as I am aware, there is no evidence that Mr. Clinton compelled her to do anything or made life difficult for her as a state employee. In a rational world, this is not a matter for litigation.

But this is not a rational world. The standards for ''sexual harassment'' now are so elastic and so expansive that telling an off-color joke by the water cooler within earshot of a litigant is comparable to assault. The gods are not to be mocked: These are principles embraced not by enthusiasts of Ms. Jones, who would like to tarnish Mr. Clinton, but by the president's friends and colleagues in the academic and political worlds.

Of course, the law of unintended consequences is immutable: It did not occur to them that the same tactics used against Clarence Thomas or Bob Packwood someday might be deployed against one of their own, Mr. Clinton. Ms. Jones and her $2 million lawsuit, and the president's six-hour deposition, are the logical consequence of playing politics by sexual means.

No doubt, Hillary Rodham Clinton thought about this while she cleaned out those White House closets.

Philip Terzian is the associate editor of the Providence Journal-Bulletin.

Pub Date: 1/23/98

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