Posted on April 06, 1998 in Washington Watch
President Clinton returned from an historic African visit to a somewhat brighter Washington than the one he left. An Arkansas judge’s dramatic decision to dismiss as unfounded Paula Jones’ lawsuit against the President has ended a major nightmare facing the White House.
It was in 1994 that Jones first appeared before the nation’s press and alleged that Clinton, while governor of Arkansas, had sexually assaulted her. In the intervening four years Jones became the “cause celebre” of right wing Republicans who adopted and heavily funded her case.
The Jones’ case is at the root of the current Monica Lewinsky matter and the host of other alleged “sex scandals” that have been making their way into the U.S. press. It was Jones’ lawyers who first interviewed, under oath, both Lewinsky and Kathryn Willey and later leaked their statements to the press.
In fact, with only eight weeks left before the Jones’ case was to have gone to trial, Jones’ lawyers have been accelerating their public relations effort to discredit the President by leaking a number of new allegations: among them, an unfounded charge that Clinton raped a woman in 1988 and the allegations that Clinton had sex 15 years ago with a former Miss America.
It may have been this “reckless” and even lawless behavior by the Jones’ legal team that convinced the judge to dismiss their case and not allow it to come to trial. In her lengthy legal opinion Judge Wright stated flatly that “there are no genuine issues for trial in this case”. She also rebuked the attorneys for attempting to make a circus of legal proceedings by leaking unsubstantiated charges to the press.
What this dismissal meant is that the White House and the country will be spared a long and drawn out televised court case that could have filled the nation’s homes with embarrassing and explicit sexual allegations of Presidential misconduct.
What it will not do is erase the damage that this case has done to the institution of the Presidency and to the personal legacy of Bill Clinton.
It was Jones’ legal team that successfully argued before the Supreme Court for their right to bring a civil lawsuit against a sitting President. In deciding in favor of the Jones team the Supreme Court stated that they believed that such a case would not distract the President from carrying out his duties and, therefore, could proceed.
While most legal experts and analysts now agree that the Supreme Court made a mistake, their decision is the law of the land. That it was a mistake is clear. For months now the White House and the nation have been engulfed by this story. While the public now overwhelmingly feels that the case was a partisan effort designed to weaken and discredit the President and the Democrats–it nevertheless continued.
Inspired by their Supreme Court victory, the Jones’ team, headed by the extremely conservative Rutherford Institute, proceeded to hurl as much dirt as they could at the President. Twenty-year-old claims that have been disproved and or denied were dusted off and sent out to an eager press. The media frenzy to publish anything sensational about the President only encouraged his detractors to send out more. Some women who denied any misbehavior by Clinton in the past were offered large sums of money to tell new stories to tabloid papers. Some did.
After months of such non-stop mud slinging, the case that spurred the entire frenzy has been thrown out of court, but the President was unable to escape unmuddied. Recent poll results are interesting to note. Most show the president’s job approval rating at still higher than expected levels 67 percent favorable to 29 percent unfavorable in one and 64% to 30% in another. But his personal ratings are much lower only 44% to 35%. The gaps between the numbers indicates that people approve of the work the President’s doing, but not of the President himself.
This is not to say that Americans approve of or believe those who accuse the President of wrongdoing. All of them have strongly negative ratings. In Paula Jones’ case only 17% approve of her, while 67% disapprove. With Kathryn Willey the numbers are 18% to 45%, Linda Tripp’s ratings are 10% to 53%. And even the Independent Prosecutor, who seeks to carry on where the Jones’ team left off, has only a 22% favorable to 49% unfavorable rating.
But the President takes little solace in the fact that his accusers fare so poorly and are less believable than he. This is a President who wants to leave a legacy of accomplishments. Only the 13th person ever reelected to the Presidency, Clinton has sought to be remembered in history for his record, not for the allegations made by his partisan detractors.
And even with the dismissal of the Paula Jones case, the partisan work of the President’s detractors will not end. The case being built against the President by the Independent Prosecutor Kenneth Starr continues. Starr is widely believed to be conducting a partisan effort.
By more than two to one the public feels that Starr’s work is partisan not impartial. There has been not only an aggressive, but active collaboration between Starr’s effort and the Jones’ case.
Starr himself seems at this point to be a man with a mission–to get Bill Clinton. His investigations have gone on now for over four years and have cost taxpayers about $40 million. Having failed to find chargeable offenses against the President in any of his earlier forays: Whitewater, the “FBI files” issue, the firings at the White House travel office, etc.–Starr has now latched on to this new effort: to see whether or not the White House lied under oath or encouraged others to lie under oath in the Paula Jones case.
Now that the Paula Jones case is no longer a case, it would be??? assumed that Starr’s work should end. But as he announced late last week, he will continue.
Some of Starr’s recent tactics have shocked even his supporters. Starr’s effort, for example, to force two Washington book stores to release records of books purchased by Monica Lewinsky has created an uproar from lawyers and civil libertarians who see the action as violating basic freedoms.
Starr will most probably be pressed to finish his work soon–since there is growing public impatience not only with his investigation, but also with the entire prolonged effort to investigate this White House. In the end, Starr’s findings will be sent to Congress for their disposition. While some in Congress would, no doubt, like to continue the attack on the President, unless there is clear and compelling evidence of serious “high crimes and misdemeanors” the Republican leadership and majority will most probably not vote to impeach the President.
With the Paula Jones’ case now discredited, the effort to hurt the President has run its course. And along the way, everyone has paid a bitter price. The President and his legacy have been damaged. The President’s detractors are viewed negatively. The Republicans are viewed as partisan “witch hunters”. The media that fed off the scandals has been discredited. And the public’s faith in politics and the institution of the presidency has been further shaken.
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