With no proof of crimes, a House censure fits the bill for Mr. Clinton's actions

March 22, 1998|By Charles Lane

KATHLEEN Willey is pretty clearly telling the truth about what happened between her and Bill Clinton on Nov. 29, 1993. And the episode is pretty clearly a far more offensive matter than Mr. Clinton's alleged dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. With Ms. Lewinsky it was consensual. The president's advance toward Mr. Willey even included a modest measure of physical force. It was made to a married woman whose husband was an acquaintance of the president and the first lady. It took place as that same married woman was asking the president for a paying job so she could rescue her family from financial disaster. And it started in the Oval Office during business hours.

So the president is a groper and a liar. He must be held accountable. The question is: How? A sexual assault charge -- as Patricia Ireland of the National Organization for Women and more than one newspaper columnist have implied?

Squeezing a woman's breasts and placing her hand on one's trousered crotch could conceivably be construed as a literal violation of certain battery statutes. But, if that makes Bill Clinton guilty of a felony, then so are millions of other American men. Do we really want to take the criminalization of sex that far? More to the point: I'd like to see anyone convince a jury -- or a House committee -- beyond a reasonable doubt that the president is guilty of assault based on nothing more than Ms. Willey's word against his. No ordinary prosecutor would even waste his time on such a case.

What about a sexual harassment lawsuit? A sexual harassment claim usually requires some continuing campaign of abuse and/or innuendo directed against an employee by an employer or another employee -- a campaign so sustained and unbearable to any "reasonable woman" that it creates "a hostile work environment." By Ms. Willey's own account, Mr. Clinton's was a one-time lunge. No repercussions followed, and she gave no subsequent indication that she found the White House anything but a congenial work environment. To the contrary, she still wanted a job there, and she wrote him notes calling herself the president's "number one fan." (Yes, it's hypocritical for presidential spinmeisters like Ann Lewis to make this argument, given that they said the opposite when it was shown that Anita Hill followed Clarence Thomas around from job to job. But I thought Mr. Thomas had a point then, and Mr. Clinton has a point now.)

Critical approach

Furthermore, it seems that some of the president's critics are trying to have it both ways, too. Maureen Dowd of The New York Times notes, for example, wrote that women often stay with lecherous employers like Mr. Clinton because they need "their bridge to a good job, a good recommendation, and a good contact." But, in her view, that shouldn't prevent them from turning this lechery "to their advantage," through a subtle form of extortion. Ms. Dowd speculates that Ms. Willey's post-grope pleas for a job may have been reinforced by an implicit "or else I'll blab."

I have just two problems with her argument. First, it's absurd to claim that a woman can't abandon an objectionable employer for fear of being blacklisted everywhere else. If Ms. Willey really needed income that badly, and really felt that offended by the president, she would not have limited her job search to the White House. Second, Ms. Dowd overlooks some of the wider implications of her view.

Workplaces in this society can function under a rule that says women have not only the right but also the duty to sue bosses who sexually harass them. Or, our offices and factories could get along under a rule that says women can't sue, but can practice stealth extortion. But we will have only unfairness and uncertainty if we try to operate under a rule that arbitrarily says, as Ms. Dowd does, "bosses beware" -- and then leaves it up to each individual woman to choose what legal or nonlegal weapon suits her at any particular moment.

That leaves perjury. By now, we've heard it a million times: Ms. Willey's story and Mr. Clinton's story collide; therefore, "someone committed perjury." Well, someone, probably the president, told something other than the truth under oath. But that is not necessarily perjury. The federal perjury statutes require not only that the false statement be about a "material matter" -- it's still debatable how "material" the Willey episode will be to the Paula Jones case -- but also proof that the accused made the false statement knowing and believing that it was false. How is anyone ever going to prove that about Mr. Clinton in this case?

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