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Why Paula Jones must wait to be heard


BOSTON -- The morning paper comes carrying the tales of two presidencies.

The first is set in the White House where the president of the United States finally awards a Medal of Honor to a black World War II veteran. "History," says the commander-in-chief "is made whole today."

The second takes place on the Supreme Court steps where Paula Corbin Jones' lawyers argue for the right to sue Bill Clinton for sexual harassment. "She wants her good name and reputation back from Bill Clinton," says Joseph Cammarata. "And by God, we're going to get it."

In one tale the president is a healer, provider of honors. In the other he is a target of dishonor. One comes with a photograph of a teary-eyed veteran. The other conjures up the image of a future courtroom drama based on a "distinguishing characteristic" of the president's genitals.

It's no mere coincidence that these two tales -- the best of Clinton and the worst of Clinton -- were pegged to one news cycle. This president does not need Dick Morris to stage his own character counterevents.

Nor does he need some guru to subtly remind us what is at stake in the Paula Jones case: the ability of a president to perform his job.

How can the ordinary person, not just the Supreme Court, best reconcile the claims of a single woman with the needs of a country? What are the values and risks of taking a president to court for a breach of sexual morals or law?

Not long ago that question would have been easier. When JFK was in the White House, the public and personal life of a president were segregated. Imagine if Judith Exner had claimed an affair and an aborted pregnancy while JFK was in office. In the world of politics and media, prominent men were shielded by other men.

Since then, the women's movement has changed many of the old rules. The personal became political, sexual harassment became a crime, and protecting a man's job no longer took automatic precedence over protecting a woman's body. The stories became more complex.

A decade ago, Gary Hart came and went on the good ship "Monkey Business." In 1990, Clarence Thomas limped to the Supreme Court. In 1992, Bill Clinton came along, with the admission that he had "caused pain" in his marriage and with a wife who said she was "not Tammy Wynette."

What then of Paula Jones and her claims of (at least) lurid behavior in a hotel room with Gov. Clinton? In the change of attitudes, are her allegations of humiliation enough to warrant shackling a president's ability to govern? Even to the women who have championed this change of attitudes?

"Feminists Take a Powder on Paula Jones" screams the conservative weekly Human Events. Conservatives who once trashed Anita Hill now ask why Ms. Hill's supporters are not forming a Friends of Paula club. And those who sneer at "welfare queens" now sneer at feminists with class-aversion to "big hair."

Her hair isn't the problem

But if there is one thing we have learned, it's that cases are as unique as the names attached.

The Paula Jones case before the Supreme Court is not the Bob Packwood case, when activists reluctantly but inevitably turned on an old ally. Nor is it the Clarence Thomas hearing, when senators were supposed to assess the character of the man headed for a lifetime post. For that matter this is not the story of Michael Irvin and his false accuser.

No one knows what happened in that Little Rock hotel room. It wasn't Ms. Jones' "big hair" that made her profile less than perfect, but her very belated coming-out party at a conservative press conference, the mixed reports from her family, and her early attempt to trade silence for money.

But even her version of the event -- a single incident that did not result in any threat to her job -- does not rise to the legal level of harassment. It doesn't assure her of any victory, except in the court of public scandal.

In this case, the difficult truth is that the proclaimed damage to Ms. Jones' reputation doesn't merit the sure damage to the presidency. Or the risk in opening the White House to those who would find it an attractive target for scattershot lawsuits.

Only the most gleeful tabloid owner could relish the idea of Bill Clinton being asked about his private parts in sworn testimony. If Jones wants to pursue the case, the $700,000, and the good name that she herself turned into a household moniker, at least let her do so when he is no longer president.

Feminists take a powder on Paula Jones? Guess what? You can believe in women's rights without believing that every woman is right.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/16/97

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