WASHINGTON -- The only thing more perilous than refusing to give the press what it wants is to give the press exactly what it wants.
Which Paula Jones found out yesterday.
Paula Jones is the woman who says Bill Clinton lured her to a hotel room in 1991, dropped his pants, and demanded oral sex. She is now suing him.
Clinton denies everything. His lawyer, Bob Bennett, claims presidential immunity and wants the courts to delay any action on the suit until Clinton has left office.
In recent months, Jones has avoided the press. But she has learned that those who do not talk get talked about.
She has been the subject of many profiles that have depicted her as "white trash."
New York magazine admitted that the term was insulting, "But white trash best encapsulates the galloping sleaze that has overrun both rural and urban America."
U.S. News & World Report pointed out that in Jones' small town of Lonoke, 25 miles from Little Rock, "A sudden smile from a local often reveals missing teeth."
Young Paula, the magazine reported, would sometimes lie in her backyard and "sun in a bikini."
Also: "Paula took to wearing short, tight skirts to school, and more makeup than other girls in Lonoke -- eyeliner, shadow, rouge, red lipstick and lip gloss."
Jones must therefore be, in case you missed the point, a floozy, a tramp and a slut (which apparently has some direct, though unexplained, connection to poor dental hygiene).
Let us, for the sake of argument, say all these things are true. Does that mean that Bill Clinton did not proposition her in that hotel room? (Or might Clinton have propositioned her in so crude a manner because he thought her to be a tramp?)
Besides, what does Jones' clothing or makeup have to do with anything? Had Jones been standing by the side of the road in her "short, tight skirt" and wearing "eyeliner, shadow, rouge," etc., and a man had come along and raped her, few people in these sensitive times would suggest it was Jones' fault.
But many stories suggest that a trashy woman like Jones either had to be asking for it from Clinton or is lying about it. Take your pick.
So Jones broke her silence yesterday to defend her character. She gave the press exactly what the press wanted: access.
But, with a single exception from a Jones supporter, the questions ranged from pointed to aggressive to hostile. (Reporter: "Why are you coming out today? I mean, it seems very timely with the upcoming elections and the political motivations there are pretty blatant. I mean, why today?")
After about 40 minutes of getting beaten up, Jones, in her own way, put best what was happening to her: "Just because I'm not a high official like a lawyer or somebody of high rank who's had a big degree or something, just because I'm from a little, small town, I'm not important. And because of who did this to me, I'm not important."
I am all for reporters asking tough questions. And no question asked of Paula Jones yesterday was illegitimate or improper.
But I'd really like to see reporters be that tough when they ask questions of President Clinton or Bennett.
But they aren't. Clinton and Bennett are very important men. And they are automatically given a degree of courtesy, if not outright deference, by reporters who would never give it to "white trash" like Paula Jones.
So I am still waiting for some reporter to get up at a Clinton press conference and ask him why, if Paula Jones is such a liar, he just doesn't go to court and let the truth come out rather than invoking presidential immunity?
And I do not buy the argument that it would take too much of his precious time.
Clinton finds time to fly across the country raising money for the Democratic Party and campaigning for Democratic candidates, purely political trips that have nothing to do with his duties as president.
And if he has time for that, he has time to spend a day or two answering a lawyer's questions.
Paula Jones' background, whatever it is, may come out before a jury that may consider it in evaluating the truth of her allegations.
Fine. But let's get on with it.
Not only Jones and Clinton, but the people have a right to the truth before the next presidential election, not after it.