WASHINGTON -- Not surprisingly, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry was quick to proclaim "vindication" for President Clinton in Judge Susan Webber Wright's dismissal of Paula Jones' sexual harassment suit against him. In the narrow legal sense, he could do so -- vindication in the specific charge that whatever happened in that Little Rock hotel room in 1991 didn't damage Ms. Jones in her job or her psyche.
But Judge Wright's action included no finding on the allegation that started the whole fiasco -- that then Governor Clinton exposed himself to Ms. Jones and solicited a sex act from her. Only in the unlikely case of the dismissal being overturned on appeal will that charge be raised in court again, and even then we might never know the truth.
Nevertheless, the Jones case smoked out considerable evidence of Mr. Clinton's reputation as a chronic womanizer. At least three women testified that he had bedded them down, and he admitted himself in his deposition in the Jones case that he had had sex once with Gennifer Flowers, contradicting his denial in the 1992 presidential campaign.
Still ahead is resolution of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation into alleged perjury, suborning perjury and obstruction of justice involving Monica Lewinsky, an outgrowth of the Jones case. Also pending are his earlier investigations of the Whitewater land deal, charges of misuse of FBI files by the Clinton White House and of misconduct in the shake-up of the White House travel office. The president clearly is not out of the woods.
With a public that had already indicated it wanted the whole business to go away before dismissal of the Jones case, the Clinton White House's claim of "vindication" will probably sell with a lot of people. This is so in spite of polls like one by CNN that found after the dismissal that 58 percent of those surveyed said they believed something sordid did happen in that Little Rock hotel room.
In a perverse way, Ms. Jones' lawyers may have proved to be Mr. Clinton's best friends in the whole matter. They pushed a very flimsy and narrow charge of sexual harassment to the ultimate, thereby setting the stage for the White House boast that Mr. Clinton had been vindicated. They apparently leaked information in defiance of the judge's specific warning against such action and then flooded the court filings with particularly sleazy allegations of sexual abuse against Mr. Clinton, the most serious of which was denied by the woman in question. It's no wonder the judge sent them and their case packing.
But the fallout of the Jones case will linger in the Starr investigation, not only in the Lewinsky matter but also in the testimony of Kathleen Willey, whose charges could be interpreted as criminal offenses of sexual abuse or assault. Even liberal women's groups that had stood by Mr. Clinton uncomfortably but silently up to then showed cracks in the wake of Ms. Willey's testimony that the president groped her when she went to see him in distress for employment help.
The Willey allegations are more serious than either those posed by Ms. Jones or by Ms. Lewinsky, who after all in her taped phone conversations with co-worker Linda Tripp spoke of consensual sex. Besides, Ms. Lewinsky as of now is sticking to her denial under oath that she ever had any sexual relations with the president.
If President Clinton were Citizen Clinton, Mr. Starr could -- if he believed it was warranted -- simply indict him. But with the legal question unsettled of whether such action can be taken against a president, the more likely resort would be to turn all his findings over to the House to consider impeachment proceedings.
There, the White House theme song of "vindication" would fall on politically sensitive ears among Democrats only too willing to hum along and among many Republicans as well, aware of public opinion that apparently has no stomach for The Breaking of the President, Part 2.
In all this, Mr. Clinton continues as he did in hearing the good news in Senegal to say all he wants to do is get away from the annoying distractions and get back to the job the American people hired him to do. Each week that passes, his stonewall strategy that dictates no explanation of what his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky really was continues to hold the wolves at bay. Meanwhile, those wolves -- the pesky news media and Hillary Clinton's real or imagined "vast right-wing conspiracy" -- mostly earn public contempt for demanding answers.
Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 4/06/98