Day Of Deliverance
Clinton enjoys a victory lap when the judge tosses out the Paula Jones case. But Ken Starr isn't going away just yet; he has never cared much about Paula, or politics...
By Nancy Gibbs
(TIME, April 13) -- Some wounds have to get worse in order to get better, which helps explain how it happened that President Clinton, accused of skanky behavior toward a young employee, actually began sometime this past winter to look forward to the moment he would be hauled into court. The Paula Jones lawsuit left a deep bruise, a story that turned more purple with each passing week as it brought us Monica and Kathleen and Dolly and the whole national conversation about what kind of sex isn't really sex. And just as the pain grew most acute, when accusers were unearthed almost daily with old charges ranging from rudeness to rape, Judgment Day came at last. We could finally understand that Clinton was willing to bet his presidency on a trial--because he might just get it back if he won.
Judge Susan Webber Wright's stunning decision to throw out the Jones case was an antidote to a poisonous winter of scandal. For the President, it was as close to a verdict of not guilty as he's ever likely to get in a case involving his sexual conduct. It left Ken Starr defending the continued relevance of his investigation even as White House aides spun out his obituary. It threw much of the press corps, especially its most aggressive investigative wing, into a defensive crouch. It inspired Newt Gingrich to marvel at the President's "courage." It gave feminists an excuse for their pragmatic hypocrisy. It left Jones' mentor Susan Carpenter-McMillan standing beneath her umbrella in a downpour, saying "The angels are crying" for her client. It left a fleet of lawyers watching Jones head off to her health club in her old Mercedes and wondering if they would ever see a dime in legal fees.
For all the fizzy talk of vindication, the only players clearly exonerated were the American people, who had since the beginning viewed this whole drama skeptically, not doubting much whether Clinton had actually done some of what Jones claimed, but doubting whether it mattered. Judge Wright just yanked the chattering class up to where the American people have been for years.
As for the President himself, arriving home from 11 days of huge crowds calling him His Excellency to a stock market toying with the 9000 mark, there was a moment of joy and relief. "I feel now that I'm freer to keep doing what I'm supposed to be doing," he told TIME on the flight home. "It removes whatever obstacle this case would have been to my giving everything to this job for the next two years."
How does he rebuild his presidency now? The easy answer is that he doesn't have to, that he can let Wall Street make people rich, and Hollywood make them happy, and if he just stays out of trouble, and beyond Starr's reach, he goes down in history as a lucky survivor. The harder answer is to seize the moment and put it to good use, an effort that assumes voters will continue to separate public from private conduct. Can he return smoothly to the agenda of moral exhortation he laid out for this term--mend race relations, find an AIDS vaccine, fix public schools, demonize tobacco--when the polls that have shown rising support for his policies have also shown falling regard for his character? However cleanly he escapes this episode, it has been stitched onto him, like Peter Pan's wayward shadow, a dark image of recklessness and dishonor that risks becoming one of his presidency's most distinguishing characteristics.
If he had gone into a state-of-the-art laboratory to concoct the ideal judge to lighten his troubles, Clinton could not have conjured a better foil than Susan Webber Wright. Only a female Republican, Bush-appointed, generally unfriendly jurist could provide such a politically and legally sweet ruling. A Democrat, foreseeing the firestorm, probably wouldn't have had the guts to do it. Though criticism rained down on conservative talk-show hosts from callers outraged that one of Clinton's former law students had been allowed to preside over the case, the fact is that Wright is no fan of Bill Clinton's. She was frosted over the infamous incident involving final exams in the class she took from him: he lost her exam and offered to give her a B+; she fought with him, won the right to retake the exam and got an A. In fact, defense lawyers in one of the cases Starr brought in the Whitewater probe were worried about getting a fair shake. She also worked for Clinton's G.O.P. opponent when he first ran for Congress in 1974.
In her carefully reasoned ruling, Judge Wright didn't say Clinton was a Boy Scout. She threw out the case by arguing that even if Clinton did everything Jones accused him of doing, it still didn't amount to sexual harassment or assault under the law. There was no evidence, Wright found, that Jones had been harmed by the episode: Jones' argument that she didn't get flowers on Secretaries' Day, that her desk had been moved, that she was discouraged from going after a better state job and too emotionally distressed to function sexually wasn't convincing. Not in the light of her merit raises, her own testimony that there had been no retaliation or the fact that she had never complained to a supervisor, filed a complaint, missed a day of work or sought out a counselor. A single proposition, the judge said, was not enough to create a hostile environment. When Clinton allegedly exposed himself and asked Jones to "kiss it," he wasn't touching her. The pass may have been odious, Wright said, but Clinton wasn't accused of forcing himself on her or threatening her when she rebuffed the advance. As for all the other women Jones' lawyers outed, even if there had been a pattern of workplace harassment, that "does not change the fact that [Jones] failed to demonstrate that she has a case worthy of submitting to a jury."
Paula Jones was said to have been driving in her car when she got the news on her cell phone, pulled over and cried. Her family huddled in its rented one-bedroom condo in Long Beach, Calif., that afternoon. Jones' husband Steve, who has said of the President that he "hates the bastard," told TIME that "this is not over by a long shot. We'll fight until the last day. It's an injustice, a travesty." What especially galled him was the notion that Clinton's alleged behavior did not rise to the standard of sexual harassment. "If dropping your pants and waving your penis around is not sexual harassment," Jones said, "I don't know what is."
That same afternoon Bob Bennett, who doesn't look happy even when he is, was sitting in his office rereading a deposition in the Jones case. He had forsworn any more distraction: no more talk, no more shows, no more press conferences. The next time anyone would see him, he would be in a courtroom. He was sure he had a winning hand, the best one he'd had since having to give up his poker games with Justice Antonin Scalia to represent the President.
Then the phone rang. It was a clerk from Judge Wright's office, saying that in 30 minutes the judge would issue her ruling in the case. She was granting the motion for summary judgment. It was all over. Bennett had taken a lot of criticism for not settling earlier and avoiding the entire Circus of 1998. But he was convinced all the dirt would have found its way out anyway, and any settlement that included an apology, which Jones' husband had insisted on, would have been seen as an admission of guilt that Clinton would never escape.
Bennett hung up and immediately called White House counsel Charles Ruff. Ruff transferred him to the military operator so that Bennett could tell the President himself. And while Bennett was waiting for a line to the President in Senegal, it occurred to him that he had better check and make sure someone wasn't pretending to be Wright's clerk for an April Fools' joke. He put his hand over the phone and asked his associate Amy Sabrin to call the judge's chambers and make sure about the ruling. She did, and by the time Bruce Lindsey answered and handed the phone to the President, Bennett was ready to start spreading the news. At first Clinton too thought it was a trick. "You gotta be kidding!" he shouted, and then said, "If I was there, I would give you a big kiss. But then you'd have to sue me."
Later in the afternoon, there was a transatlantic conference call between the advisers traveling with the President and those left behind at the White House, during which the order was given: no high-fiving or gloating in public. They didn't send anyone out to the talk shows that night, and Bennett gave only a brief sidewalk press statement. Spokesman Mike McCurry went out to address the members of the press corps traveling with Clinton, was reluctant to say whether the President had so much as smiled at the news, and then urged that they all break for dinner.
While the subdued reaction was carefully choreographed, it reflected some mixed emotions. Surprise and relief to be sure, but sauced with some fury at what the past three years--and especially the past three months--have done to everyone's life, as if a decision voiding a civil action somehow voided the alleged facts of the case. Having lived with this case for so long and having seen the damage it inflicted on Clinton and his presidency, deputy chief of staff John Podesta had mixed emotions. He told friends privately that "part of me wants to celebrate, and part of me wants to punch someone."
A senior White House official said he was convinced Wright's ruling would sink Starr's investigation as well. "It's over," the official said. "Ken Starr was on thin ice anyway. The public isn't going to tolerate his hauling witnesses before the grand jury and continuing his investigation when the case that got this whole thing started has been thrown out." Just to help things along, the surprised White House quickly regrouped and sent its heralds out to draw attention to new charges, that conservative groups paid off David Hale, a key witness in the ongoing land-scam probe in Arkansas.
It has been White House strategy for months to tie the Jones case as tightly as possible to Starr's operation and then take them down, one at a time if necessary, together if possible, so that the House Judiciary Committee would be hard pressed to take up his recommendations. This has worked far better than even the White House had expected; in fact the linkage has been so effective that some in Starr's office were actually delighted to have Jones and her handlers wiped away.
Starr for his part was quick to say his case never depended on Jones', and the collapse of the civil case would do nothing to his criminal case. The White House machinists, he said, were trying to use the Wright ruling to spin a false sense of vindication. He plans to press forward with his probe into whether Clinton lied under oath about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and tried to cover it up. But it said much about his team's p.r. problems that even before the Wright decision came down, Starr had reached out to Stuart Taylor, the lawyer and journalist who had legitimized the Jones case in a landmark 1996 piece for the American Lawyer, and asked him to write Starr's report to Congress. Taylor turned him down on Monday. On Wednesday the Jones' case was dismissed, and then came more bad news the next day. Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, who is presiding over Starr's grand jury in Washington, is considering referring some of his top aides to the Office of Professional Responsibility for not letting Lewinsky talk to her lawyer right away on the day she was caught in an FBI sting at the Ritz Carlton and was pressed to cooperate in exchange for immunity. That same day, Attorney General Janet Reno announced an investigation would be launched into the Hale payoffs. Said a White House staff member, bending if not breaking the no-gloat rule: "I don't know much, but I know that all makes for a bad day."
Starr was at home taking out the trash that morning, when he decided to offer a long press conference that revealed as much about his moral outlook as his legal one. There is "no room for white lies" in sworn testimony, even if the case is thrown out, he asserted. "In that civil case, you cannot defile the temple of justice." Starr recalled fondly the Joe Friday character on Dragnet who was interested in "just the facts, ma'am." His rambling sermon was so defensive that White House staff members started paging one another, asking, "Are you watching this?" A staff member said, "It was like Captain Queeg. All that was missing was the metal balls and the strawberries." He added, "Who would have thought at the end of this, Starr, not Clinton, would have been the one acting like Nixon?"
But all those who said it was now likely that Starr would just shrivel up and go away don't understand the man or his four-year mission. While the Jones matter rested on her word against the President's, Starr is armed with tape-recorded assertions by Lewinsky that implicate Clinton in sexual acts he specifically denied under oath and in an attempted cover-up of those acts. "Our facts are very different; our scope is very different," Starr told reporters as he recited the allegations that the Attorney General instructed his office to examine: subornation of perjury, intimidation of witnesses and obstruction of justice.
There was, conspicuously, no mention of perjury. Starr knows that lying about sex is not the stuff of impeachment proceedings. He is more intent on compiling evidence of obstruction: the possibility that Clinton coached secretary Betty Currie on key details of his relationship with Lewinsky, Vernon Jordan's extraordinary job search for her around the time she signed an affidavit denying a presidential affair, and the orphaned "talking points" Lewinsky allegedly handed Linda Tripp, asking her to lie in her deposition. Starr hopes to make obstruction the heart of his report to Congress, not only because it is a grave offense. It is a common thread in other parts of his far-flung probe of alleged hush money to Webster Hubbell, the sacking of the White House travel-office staff and the disappearance of Hillary's billing records in a Whitewater-related case.
But the political terrain keeps shifting beneath him. "Independent counsels need to take a measure of their environment and the temperature of the community," whether a jury or Congress, said Washington criminal defense lawyer Tom Green. With the dismissal of Jones v. Clinton, "it will look even more like the only reason Starr's probing into some of these areas is to learn more about Clinton's sex life," said another legal observer.
Over on Capitol Hill the lawmakers were just as shocked as everyone else and scrambling to find some high ground. For Democrats who had stuck with Clinton just as long as the public did, the ruling made it much easier to snuggle up to him and embrace an agenda that has been carefully tailored to their tastes. For Republicans who had been relishing the opportunities for legislative mischief that a distracted President presented, the idea of facing a vengeful, vindicated, legacy-building White House wasn't much fun. Any impeachment effort that was not bipartisan would amount to a suicide mission. The G.O.P. lacks the votes as well as the stomach to do it alone, and the House judiciary panel is hopelessly divided by party and ideology: Bob Barr vs. Barney Frank sounds like a special weeklong edition of Crossfire, not a constitutional crisis. Senate Republican Arlen Specter came right out and drew the line: "Unless there is an open-and-shut case, the kind which would result in a resignation, as happened with President Nixon, I do not think there ought be an impeachment proceeding."
The sixth year of a Democratic presidency ought to be a ripe hunting ground for G.O.P. candidates. The party holding the White House almost always gets trounced in midterm elections, on account of a thinning agenda and a sense that the best is over. But this year the trends aren't cooperating. The Republicans are running behind the Democrats in generic polls about the election, as much as 10% in some surveys. No one, especially the G.O.P., wants to be marketing scandal during the autumn. Better, as a Gingrich strategist put it, to intone, "'We have the papers; we're reviewing them. We have the papers; we're reviewing them.' That's what we would say. Over and over."
House Republicans, a volatile and skittish group by nature, were worried enough about their re-elections to pass a massive, old-fashioned, pork-laden, budget-busting spending bill last week. The rallying cry was, "Take care of your district!" Meaning, "Protect your seat!" In district after district where Clinton is running plenty strong atop a buoyant economy, the President is a Wizard, a witch doctor, the guy with spooky, powerful voodoo; he can outlive, outlast, outmaneuver anything, even multiple, degrading, humiliating sex scandals. The G.O.P. members see the stories and then look at his numbers and look back at the stories and their heads just spin. What does this guy eat? they wonder.
The problem for Clinton is longer term: Paula Jones may have lost the case, but she went a long way toward winning the war about what kind of legacy Bill Clinton will carry into history. Perhaps it is easier to see now why all those bimbo hunters and Dustbusters were necessary. As a Clinton adviser put it, "Just think of what they got into the public arena. They did very well. Some of it is irreparable." This adviser, who goes back to the earliest days of the Clinton campaign, suggests that Jones' lawyers, knowing they lacked any kind of case, just decided somewhere along the line to open Pandora's box, dump it all out there, burn down the house.
Always campaigning, Clinton argues that his winter of woe has made him better prepared to give his second term the focus it has lacked: "Every President since George Washington has talked about how the country deserves the President to free himself of his own personal concerns and become totally obsessed with the public interest. It's been a test. But I've tried to do that." In a very real sense, says adviser Paul Begala, the judge's decision is "both a shield and a sword." Clinton will now lay out in a series of speeches things still to be done, missions to be accomplished, and challenge Congress to work with him. Fix tobacco, fix Social Security and Medicare, address education, find common ground on an array of foreign policy challenges; in short, remind Americans what he means when he says he is just trying to do his job--as well as set up a possible campaign against the Republicans and the do-nothing Congress this fall.
Maybe that would work, but then again, nothing in this long winter and early spring has played out the way it was supposed to. Clinton's adversaries were hard pressed to find the bright side, but Senate majority leader Trent Lott made a go of it: "I assume that since this appears to be good news for Clinton," he said, "his poll numbers will go down."
--Reported by Jay Branegan, Margaret Carlson, James Carney, Michael Duffy, Viveca Novak, Karen Tumulty and Michael Weisskopf/Washington