WASHINGTON -- The so-called mainstream press -- meaning conventional newspapers and the major television networks -- have been avoiding the Paula Jones story for the past three months.
But the decision by Jones to bring a lawsuit against President Clinton and the response of the president in hiring Washington defense lawyer Robert S. Bennett have made that policy impossible. The issue is now very much in the public domain.
So the operative question is what, if anything, do the charges of sexual harassment raised by Jones mean in terms of the president's political position. And that is a question simply impossible to answer at this point.
The complaint about Clinton's conduct while he was governor of Arkansas in 1991 was first voiced publicly by Jones at a press conference here during a conservative political action conference in February. The major newspapers brushed it off -- in part because the charges were made in the context of that conference and in part because of a feeling in the mainstream press that Clinton's personal conduct in the past is irrelevant in judging his public conduct in the Oval Office.
Equally important, no organ of the mainstream press had done any of its own reporting to corroborate the incident at the Excelsior Hotel that Jones described. Now, after an investigation, the Washington Post has produced what appears to be testimony backing her story.
At the least, the story provides more grist for the conservative critics of Clinton who have been complaining about a double standard in the press that covered so extensively the accusations of Anita Hill against Clarence Thomas after he was nominated for the Supreme Court. The episodes are quite different in many respects, but there is enough of a parallel -- sexual harassment of a young woman by an official of superior rank -- to make it appear justifiable to pursue the story.
Perhaps most to the point, Clinton's decision to hire Bennett, a lawyer with a star reputation in defending public figures, suggested that, at the least, the White House was taking the Jones matter very seriously.
In trying to judge the potential impact of the Jones charges, there is no clear precedent to offer any measuring stick. Early in the 1992 campaign, Gennifer Flowers charged that she and Clinton had a long-standing sexual relationship.
Clinton denied the accusation, and opinion polls and focus group meetings found that voters were angered first by Flowers for making such a charge and then equally by the willingness of the news media to give her story so much coverage. The verdict seemed to be that Clinton's personal life shouldn't be an issue when the voters were so focused on the condition of their economy and the presidential candidates' prescriptions for change.
Polls showed Clinton lost strength among primary voters that spring because of his handling of questions about his history of evading the draft during the Vietnam War -- but not because of the Gennifer Flowers episode. In a celebrated TV interview on the CBS program "60 Minutes," candidate Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton conceded there had been problems in their marriage but that they were in the past.
That explanation was considered convincing enough by Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire that Clinton finished a strong second to Paul Tsongas and declared himself "the comeback kid" as he marched inexorably toward the presidential nomination. And it was also convincing enough so that Republican strategists in the general election campaign believed that the issue of Clinton's personal life -- although not his draft history -- could not be raised without evoking a backlash in the electorate.
Clinton's reputation as a womanizer has been a staple of gossip inside the political community for years and a topic for the tabloid press, both print and televised, since he came to national prominence. But most news organizations have been conspicuously uncomfortable dealing with matters that don't bear directly on his public performance -- the standard usually employed in measuring the worth of stories about any political leader's personal foibles.
Clinton's political adversaries will argue now, however, that the Jones episode raises questions about his character. And the Republicans will be looking for ways to raise similar questions, however obliquely, in the 1996 campaign. For better or worse, the Paula Jones story is no longer just something to sweep under the rug.