Paula Jones' charges still ring true

November 18, 1998|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- On the occasion of President Clinton's decision to shell out $850,000 to make the Paula Jones case go away, the president's private lawyer, Bob Bennett, explained it by saying Mr. Clinton "is not prepared to spend one more hour on this matter."

Small wonder. "This matter" opened a sleazy can of worms for the president that ultimately exposed his scandalous behavior with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office and resulted in his repeated public and grand jury lies about it.

Had Mr. Clinton agreed to settle when he had the chance much earlier, the Lewinsky matter might never have come to light. But Ms. Jones was insisting then that Mr. Clinton accompany any payment with an apology for what she alleged was a sexual proposition by him in a Little Rock hotel room when he was governor. Mr. Clinton refused then, and only when Ms. Jones dropped that demand was the deal finally struck.

Doubts abound

The president continues to insist, according to Mr. Bennett, that the charges are "baseless," and the formal settlement stipulates that nothing in it "shall be construed to be an admission of liability or wrongdoing by any party." But Diogenes himself would be hard-pressed to find many people, in the wake of the Lewinsky revelations, to give Mr. Clinton the benefit of the doubt at this point on what happened in that hotel room.

At the same time, the polls support Mr. Bennett's argument that "it is clear that the American people want their president and Congress to focus on the problems they were elected to solve," and that "this is a step in that direction."

To the president, $850,000 may seem like nothing. He apparently XTC has enough people willing to shell it out for him without batting an eye; his legal defense fund is said now to hold more than $2 million. To the average American, though, it's a bundle to pay for an offense he says he never committed. Also, this case was already thrown out of court once.

Pending appeal

It's the appeal that was pending, however, that worried Mr. Clinton's attorneys, fearing that the judge might agree to reinstate the case on grounds he lied in his deposition saying he'd never had sex with Ms. Lewinsky. The judge could still hold him in contempt on those grounds, but it's considered more likely that the settlement will put the whole business to rest at last.

The ease with which the president is able to get his hands on $850,000 to dispose of "this matter" is a remarkable testimony to the support of his friends -- and his willingness to use them. He is not a rich man and has little opportunity to become one while he remains in public office. But independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr's zeal in going after him has made Mr. Clinton the victim in the eyes of many of the supporters who have come to his rescue.

With impeachment seeming to be less likely with each passing )) day, even to questions now about whether articles of impeachment can be sent to and voted out of the House, Mr. Clinton's critics are being greatly frustrated.

The idea of Congress somehow accompanying a censure with a financial penalty of the sort slapped on House Speaker Newt Gingrich for ethical misconduct seems more far-fetched than ever. Mr. Clinton could go a long way toward disarming his critics by offering to pay the legal bills of all those loyal White House aides drawn into debt by their obligations to give grand jury testimony in the Lewinsky matter. But so far he has concentrated only on saving his own skin.

Most of those aides are, like him, not rich and have no fat cats lining up to contribute to a defense fund in their behalf. They have nothing, to be sure, to defend themselves against other than their gullibility in believing Mr. Clinton in the first place, or in denying publicly what their own experience with the man told them might well have been true.

Her good name

As for Ms. Jones, she may prove to be the hapless middle-woman in the transfer of Mr. Clinton's payoff money to her various lawyers. You can only hope she meant it when she originally said all she wanted was to protect her good name, and after all the publicity, that's not a sure thing either.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 11/18/98

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