WASHINGTON -- As Robert S. Bennett walked out of the federal courthouse here a couple of weeks ago, a student asked the president's lawyer for an autograph. "Want a little advice?" Bennett quipped to the young visitor. "Be a dentist."
As the Paula Corbin Jones case dragged into its fourth year, exposing Clinton to increasingly salacious charges of sexual misconduct, Bennett had been taking a beating, attracting unaccustomed criticism for his handling of the lawsuit -- especially his failure to dispense with it long ago.
But Wednesday night, after the Jones case was dismissed by a federal judge, Bennett waltzed into the tony Palm restaurant downtown to hearty applause, sipped Dom Perignon on the house and celebrated the biggest victory of his career, one that would go a long way toward vindicating the bearish and blustery $475-an-hour lawyer.
In many ways, the dismissal of Jones' sexual misconduct case against the president was as sweet for Bennett as it was for his client. In congratulating Bennett, Clinton ally James Carville said the lawyer had proved wrong "all the back-stabbers and second-guessers and everything else we've got around this crummy town."
"Brilliant lawyering" is what many of his colleagues are saying now. "Complete vindication."
"I'm very pleased," said an uncharacteristically understated Bennett, 58, whose client list already included luminaries of both parties such as Caspar W. Weinberger, a Reagan defense secretary; and Clark M. Clifford, a longtime Democratic adviser and official.
But some believe that, in winning the battle, Bennett might have lost the war.
If the Jones lawsuit had been settled, some lawyers argue, the
world might never have heard of Monica Lewinsky, Kathleen Willey or the other women whose embarrassing allegations of sexual encounters with Clinton were brought to light by Jones' lawyers.
The president's relationships with those women, and any White House efforts to influence their testimony, are now part of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's criminal investigation.
"This was a textbook example of how not to handle a case," said Lynne Bernabei, a plaintiffs lawyer in sexual harassment cases. "It's hardly a defense lawyer's job to get a client in more trouble in a criminal investigation with his handling of a civil suit."
Bernabei said that because such sexual misconduct lawsuits often delve into sexual histories, Bennett should have foreseen the fallout that would ensue -- especially with a client such as Clinton, who she said "has a weak spot" in this area.
"Bennett should have jumped at a settlement offer," Bernabei said. "The temporary embarrassment of an apology to Jones would have been much preferable to the long-range political damage from what's happened in the meantime. And this may well be the legacy of the Clinton presidency."
Bennett says he and the president's advisers "fully anticipated" that women from Clinton's past would emerge with this suit.
But, he says, "this was a political case in the format of a sexual harassment case. The political experts and myself were of the view that to settle the case on the terms we would have had to settle on would have been much more politically harmful."
Many of his legal brethren agree, pointing out that the parade of women who have been questioned by Jones' lawyers would have come to the attention of Clinton's opponents -- and thus, the public -- even if the case had been disposed of years ago. On the heels of a payment and an apology to Paula Jones, their charges would have been doubly damaging, they say.
"The smear appendix," said defense lawyer Stanley Brand, referring to a court filing by the Jones lawyers containing allegations of Clinton's ties to numerous other women, "would have been put through the right-wing mill. Somehow, those pieces would have come out. Settlement of the case would not have changed it."
Said Brand: "Ultimately, it's better to have gotten this kind of ringing victory than to have always had the lingering questions that a settlement would leave."
But there were efforts to settle. In August, Bennett and Gilbert Davis, Jones' lawyer at the time, came close to a deal in which Clinton would pay his accuser $700,000, express regret that her reputation had been injured but acknowledge no wrongdoing. The deal fell apart when Jones demanded more money and an explicit apology.
Clinton and his lawyer now believe they have achieved a much finer ending. A source close to Clinton said the president and first lady were vehemently against settling the case, believing any deal would be seen as an admission of guilt and thus political suicide.
"You don't pay $700,000 if you didn't do it," the source said, surmising the public's reaction to a settlement. "A settlement is with you for the rest of your life and becomes a part of the legacy."
First victory in case
Bennett scored his first victory in the case when he managed to