WASHINGTON -- The case of William Jefferson Clinton vs. Paula Corbin Jones is all about class, his class and hers.
His is the class that did not go to Vietnam, and for the most part did not forthrightly refuse to go to Vietnam either, because one must preserve one's "political viability." Hers is the class that did go, and that, in 57,000 instances, lost not merely political but mortal viability.
His is the class that came of age possessed by a conviction that it was equipped to remake the world, a destiny so manifest and so manifestly good that those who shared it comprised a new elite, the elite of the deserving, privileged for the sake of us all.
When a member of this class does something a little eyebrow-raising -- makes $100,000 on a sweetheart commodities deal, say, or exercises his droit de seigneur with a working girl -- the better sort of people avert their eyes. It would be not merely unseemly to notice, it would be wrong. Unpatriotic, really.
Thus, when Paula Jones, a citizen of the other class, accused Bill Clinton of exposing himself to her in a hotel room and asking her to bestow upon his person a particularly intimate kiss, she was greeted with a vast silence punctuated by occasional expressions of open class contempt.
She was, said Newsweek's Evan Thomas, "some sleazy woman with big hair coming out of the trailer parks." (To Mr. Thomas' credit, he later took a swipe at himself in print for this "elitist attitude.") The feminists who had championed Anita Hill mostly dismissed her. Ms. Jones was a gold-digging tart, ran the storyline. She had her nerve.
She certainly had. She had the nerve to fight the president of the United States all the way to the Supreme Court. And her nerve is all the more admirable for the modesty of her desires. All she wanted was a little recognition that even people like her have rights. Big hair and distinguishing characteristics aside, Clinton vs. Jones is about egalitarianism.
Stuart S. Taylor Jr., in his climate-changing American Lawyer article defending Ms. Jones' case, concluded that "the evidence supporting Paula Jones' allegations of predatory, if not depraved, behavior by Bill Clinton is far stronger" than the evidence supporting Anita Hill's allegations . . . [against] Clarence Thomas," and included "clear proof . . . that then-governor Clinton's state trooper-bodyguard . . . took [Ms. Jones] to meet Clinton -- the boss of Jones' boss -- alone in an upstairs suite at Little Rock's Excelsior Hotel, for the apparent purpose of sexual dalliance."
But Ms. Jones apparently never would have forgotten her place to the extent of complaining about this had not Trooper Danny Ferguson, and later Mr. Clinton's shills, besmirched (in Ms. Jones' opinion) her reputation. Initially she asked not for monetary damages, but only for an admission by Mr. Clinton that he had met her in that hotel room that day, and that she had done nothing improper.
And, initially, Mr. Clinton was prepared to agree; lawyers settled on a statement in which the president would say that he did not recall meeting Ms. Jones "in a room," but would add that "I do not challenge her claim that we met there," and that she "did not engage in any improper or sexual conduct."
But the president's very brilliant advisers could not resist, as they can never resist, spinning the story their way, and they leaked to the press the untrue charge that Ms. Jones was settling because she knew her accusations would not stand up to examination. That tore it, and Ms. Jones sued.
The deserving class
President Clinton's argument that her case should be postponed until after he leaves office was nothing but an expression of the theory of the deserving class. His claim was that the president can't be sued like any other citizen, even for actions taking place out of and utterly unrelated to office, because he is too valuable to the country. He couldn't be sued because he had to preserve his political viability.
No, said the entire court, in tones of polite astonishment. "We have never suggested that the president, or any other official, has an immunity that extends beyond the scope of any action taken in an official capacity." It seems odd that the Supreme Court had to inform the president that, as it noted in the syllabus of its opinion, "the president . . . is subject to the same laws that apply to all citizens," and that the imperative to do public good does not exempt one from those laws.
Mr. Clinton thought that he was hitting on a woman, but he was hitting on an American.
Michael Kelly is editor of The New Republic, in which this article first appeared.
Pub Date: 5/30/97