Sex issue puts pinch on Clinton attorney Bennett, White House balance legal strategy and political needs

March 21, 1998|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- For the second time in less than a year, President Clinton's attorney, Robert S. Bennett, signaled this week that he was going after Paula Corbin Jones' sexual history -- only to quickly reverse himself.

Bennett's abrupt about-face again demonstrates that the White House is fighting a two-front war: one legal, the other political.

The legal battle is being waged over whether Jones' sexual misconduct lawsuit against Clinton should ever come to trial. The political fight is being waged in the court of public opinion. In that arena, Clinton risks a public backlash if he raises issues, such as Jones' sex life, that might be perceived as an attack on a victim.

Jones' sex life became an issue after her lawyers filed papers last week saying that her alleged 1991 encounter with Clinton traumatized her to the point that she now has an "aversion" to sex.

"In the law, you talk about 'opening the door,' and Paula Jones' lawyers opened the door when they said she had 'a sexual aversion' because of what Clinton did to her," said Deborah Katz, a Washington lawyer who specializes in sexual harassment law. "So, legally, they are on safe ground. Politically, it looks unsavory. The women's groups wouldn't like it and the White House knows it."

Bennett's frustration at having to factor in such considerations was evident yesterday.

"President Clinton has less rights than any citizen in the United States of America in litigation," the lawyer told reporters.

Several private lawyers said last night that although Bennett might be engaging in hyperbole, his point is nevertheless valid.

"If her demand for damages is based, in part, on a claim that she didn't want sex as often or didn't enjoy it as much after the alleged encounter with [Clinton], it's certainly open for the defense to put on a guy she slept with to say she seemed to enjoy it fine, said it was great and so forth," said Washington attorney Steven M. Schneebaum.

"They've put the president in a place where he has to lead with his chin," he said. "It can come across wrong. He becomes open to the criticism, 'You mean, you're saying a woman with a past can't be harassed? You mean you're saying she asked for it?' "

Women's groups have reacted strongly to the allegations of Kathleen E. Willey, who said Sunday on CBS' "60 Minutes" that the president groped her sexually Nov. 29, 1993, when she went into the Oval Office to ask him for a job.

For the first time, Clinton's staunch backers expressed misgivings about him. Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, said: "Kathleen Willey's sworn testimony moves the question from whether the president is a 'womanizer' to whether he's a sexual predator."

The White House launched a swift counterattack. The president said Willey has been inconsistent in her recollections. Bennett revealed she was seeking a book deal, and the White House released laudatory letters she wrote to Clinton after the alleged encounter.

In one sense, the counter-punching worked: Clinton's approval ratings did not drop and much of the news media was, by the end of the week, discounting Willey. And yet, women's groups were uneasy about the fury and nature of the White House tactics. Many prominent feminists were embarrassed that Democrats were embracing precisely the logic that they had rejected in the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas case: A woman's credibility is undermined if she maintains a cordial relationship with a powerful man who might have harassed her.

This came to a boiling point Thursday when Bennett wrote U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, saying he would submit -- under seal -- "sensitive information of a sexual nature about Paula Jones" in a court filing.

Jones' lawyers leaked the letter to produce "pointed questions" for Bennett, attorney Wesley Holmes said on CNN.

Bennett told reporters yesterday that he had abandoned his plans for now, though he said he did so for reasons of legal strategy, not politics.

"We were going to put in some materials that we thought were relevant, sensitive materials, to her new damage claim, and as a few of the questions here have indicated, it only seems fair to have done that," Bennett said. "We did not complete our pleadings till about 8 this morning. We decided sometime

around midnight or 1 [a.m.] that we wanted to tighten it up a little bit, we wanted to take out a lot of the fat in it. And that's what we did."

But at his daily briefing, White House press secretary Mike McCurry hinted that Clinton was not unaware of the contents of Bennett's letter -- and that it was the president who killed the plan to delve into Jones' sexual past.

Asked if Clinton felt it was inappropriate to use Jones' sexual history, McCurry replied, "yes."

One top White House official said Bennett never planned to use the material, just that he had "written a clumsy sentence in his letter." But two others said it was clear someone changed his mind.

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