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Viewpoint: What Paula Has Taught Us

This Arkansan has expanded our vocabulary and animated our politics

By Andrew Ferguson

TIME magazine 4-13-98

(TIME, April 13) -- Upon hearing the news, President Clinton banged a drum to an uneven beat, and strummed a guitar that he cannot play, and chewed a cigar that his wife will not let him smoke. Paula Jones' response was even more typical of the person she is: she wept, we are told, and then announced to reporters gathered at her condo, "I want to go work out."

Don't listen to the naysayers and skeptics, the professional doom-mongers and moralizing tut-tutters; this is still a great country, and Paula Jones has proved it to be so. There was a time when only domestic fat cats and foreign tyrants could bring a presidency to the brink of destruction. But Paula Jones has democratized the calculus of scandal. She earned $12,000 working for something called the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission--surely the bureaucratic equivalent of the Maytag repair service. One spring day, as she manned a registration desk at a conference, fate brought her into the line of sight of her Governor, who allegedly divined beneath her frothy perm a "come-hither" look. A state trooper appeared at her side, imploringly. She rose from her chair and stepped into the roiling currents of American history. It is a Horatio Alger story for our time. It could have happened to anybody wearing mascara.

This is a different country because of Paula Jones--and maybe a better one too. Already the vocabulary of popular culture has been immeasurably enlarged. In the fuddy-duddy New York Times, it has become acceptable to see oral sex on the front page--the words, I mean. Barroom rakes can be grateful for half a dozen new pickup lines, each with presidential cachet. "You make my knees knock." "I like your curves"--or, alternatively, "I like the way the hair falls down your back." And when all else fails: "Kiss it." Lawyers of the future will know to reach at once for the trademark wordplay of Robert Bennett, growling at plaintiffs, "This is tabloid trash with a legal caption." Even our knowledge of medicine has deepened. Everyone now knows that Peyronie isn't an Italian luncheon meat.

Our politics too have been clarified by Jones. Her first public appearance was with a group of conservative activists that even Lee Atwater once dismissed as the "Third Hand Society," so called because of their odd, slightly extraterrestrial appearance. Suddenly these outraged defenders of Clarence Thomas were exquisitely sensitive to the pain of sexual harassment. And when Jones filed her case--employing an absurdly expansive reading of the Constitution's "equal protection" clause so beloved of left-wing legal gadflies--their advocacy never wavered.

Liberals learned some new poses too. Confronted with Jones, the great pseudo-populist James Carville started to sound like a Saltonstall from Beacon Hill. "You drag hundred-dollar bills through trailer parks, and there's no telling what you'll find," he sniffed. Carville trashing trailer parks! It was like Shamu making fun of Sea World. The liberal cave-in was good news for lechers everywhere. A boss paws his employee, drops his drawers, asks for some non-job-related assistance, and the feminist establishment wonders whether this really can, in fact, within the confines of the law, be called, as a technical matter, you know, sexual harassment. The question turns, apparently, on the boss's feelings about federally subsidized child care. "We've got a legal system, and it works," chirped Senator Carol Moseley-Braun when the suit was dismissed. Moseley-Braun owes her election in part to public outrage over the manhandling of Anita Hill. On that happy day when the Senator is returned to private employment, we can only hope her future boss takes note. "Ms. Moseley-Braun, could you step into my office?"

From such unexpected turns you might conclude that our political fault lines are extraordinarily subtle and complex. Or you could conclude that our pols and activists and professional ideologues are throne sniffers who care more for power than principle. With the precision of a poli-sci prof, Jones has shown us the answer.

And finally she has taught us a great deal about our nation's Feminist-in-Chief, its leading Sensitive Guy. In public Bill Clinton surrounds himself with the Donna Shalalas of the world, the Alexis Hermans and the Janet Renos, the admirable career women of the 1970s ideal. But alone in a hotel room, with a trooper as emissary, it is the Paulas of the world he wants to see, with the permed hair and the puce lipstick and the long, blood-red nails--the gals with that come-hither look. There are things we probably shouldn't know about a President, but this isn't one of them.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: April 13, 1998

The Presidents: History's Judgment
Day Of Deliverance: Judge Tosses Out Jones Case
Interview With President Clinton: "It was in the best interest of the country"
Meanwhile, Back In Arkansas...
Washington Diary: Paula, We Hardly Knew Ye
Viewpoint: What Paula Has Taught Us
McCain's Big Tobacco Deal
Whitewater: Hale Storm Rising
The Strange Case Of The Spy In The Winnebago
The Notebook: Webb Hubbell Back In The Spotlight


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