President's attorney now sets out to prove Jones wasn't hurt

March 25, 1998|By Jack Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- An interesting White House strategy can be gleaned from the actions of President Clinton's attorney, Robert S. Bennett, in dealing with Kathleen Willey, who accused the president in a deposition and then on CBS News' "60 Minutes" of unwanted sexual advances in 1993.

Mr. Bennett, in his cross-examination of Ms. Willey made public last week, drew responses that underscored basic differences between her alleged encounter with Mr. Clinton and that of Paula Corbin Jones, who is charging in her civil suit that she suffered financially and psychologically from her meeting with Mr. Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, in Little Rock.

The president's attorney established from Ms. Willey's answers that Mr. Clinton "didn't force himself on you," that "you were free to leave right away," that Mr. Clinton did not "expose his private parts to you" or "ask you to undress" or undress himself. Mr. Bennett also drew from Ms. Willey that she had never "been employed by the Arkansas state government," that she had "instigated" her meetings with Mr. Clinton, that she had never had sexual relations with him, nor had he asked her to.

What all this obviously was about was Mr. Bennett's objective of demonstrating that Ms. Willey's story had little in common with Ms. Jones' story, although both included allegations of sexual misconduct by the president. Mr. Bennett clearly wants to make the point that the charges in the Jones case are primarily about alleged sexual harassment of an employee by an employer -- what Ms. Jones claims resulted from Mr. Clinton's alleged behavior, not just the behavior itself.

From all that has surfaced, it is no sure thing that the judge in the Jones case will find that she was materially or psychologically damaged, even assuming that the facts of her hotel room encounter with Mr. Clinton are what she says they are. It has been established that she received raises in her job, grounds for Mr. Bennett to challenge her contention that the workplace was poisoned against her after the incident.

As for charges that she suffered "sexual aversion" afterward, Mr. Bennett signaled last week that he was ready to offer evidence that she had sexual encounters with other men later. He never produced it, whether out of a sense that doing so might hurt his client in the public eye, or whether he didn't have such evidence.

It seems clear that Mr. Clinton's lawyers hope they can win the Jones case on the narrow grounds that Ms. Jones did not suffer financially or psychologically from the alleged encounter.

If they can achieve that, you can expect that they will then peddle the idea that Mr. Clinton has been found innocent not only of the narrow charge that his alleged actions caused her financial and emotional loss, but also of the charge of sexual harassment itself.

Considering the fact that polls show the citizenry doesn't seem to be very concerned about whether Mr. Clinton did anything wrong in that hotel room, or indeed in the various alleged acts of hanky-panky in or near the Oval Office, the strategy may work.

But the president would not be out of the woods with a favorable narrow verdict in the Jones case. There remains the investigation by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, which goes not only to what Mr. Clinton did in his private dealings with Ms. Jones, Ms. Willey and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, but whether he lied under oath about his behavior and urged others to lie under oath.

If Mr. Starr believes he has enough information to accuse the president of perjury, suborning perjury or obstruction of justice, and takes legal action or refers it to the House Judiciary Committee for a possible impeachment inquiry, the same finesse may not work. But before anything like that happened, getting the Jones case dismissed or winning it on narrow grounds would be a major public relations coup.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/25/98

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