Is he home free?
Kenneth Starr, the dogged prosecutor who has been digging into the dirt surrounding President Bill Clinton for the past four years, has been called many things— dedicated Christian, man of principle, right-wing zealot. It has also been said that he has a political tin ear, that when it comes to image and that quintessential Washington reality, spin, he just doesn’t get it. So it was that when Starr emerged from his suburban home into the bright sunlight of the morning after Paula Jones’s sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton was thrown out of court, he was carrying a plastic bag full of garbage. A phalanx of reporters and camera crews awaited him, but Starr first detoured to the trash bin and disposed of the bag. Then he turned and spent 25 minutes patiently explaining why his investigation of Clinton would not be hampered. What matters, he said, as the noise of a garbage truck making its way along his street almost drowned him out, is simply: ‘Were crimes committed?”
Throwing out the garbage. For Clinton’s allies, revelling in their first solid victory after a dozen weeks of dispiriting news, the sym-
bolism could hardly have been more apt. Starr is Clinton’s chief tormentor, the man whose relentless investigation into Whitewater and related scandals has cast a long shadow over his presidency. Since mid-January, when Starr added Monica Lewinsky’s alleged Oval Office encounters with the President to his portfolio, his inquiry and Jones’s lawsuit seemed to merge into a single assault on Clinton.
Last week’s surprising ruling by Arkansas Judge Susan Webber Wright that Jones’s claim of sexual harassment was “without merit,” and should not even be heard by a jury, immediately put the President’s critics on the defensive. His defenders had argued ever since Jones first made her allegations against Clinton in 1994 that she was a tool of his right-wing opponents, that her lawsuit was, in fact, political garbage. Now that it was being tossed out, they said in effect, so should Starr’s pursuit of the President.
That will not happen, as Starr himself made perfectly clear. True, the question of whether Clinton lied or tried to get anyone else to lie about his relationship with Lewinsky, the onetime White House intern who claimed in taped conversations to have had sex with Clinton
for 18 months, was intimately bound up with the Jones case. In January, her lawyers questioned the President under oath about Lewinsky and other women. With Jones’s lawsuit thrown out, the White House argued that it would be ridiculous to pursue allegations flowing from it. ‘Why,” asked Rahm Emanuel, a senior counsellor to Clinton, “are we having an investigation on a parallel matter after the case has been dismissed?” Clinton himself clearly savored the moment. Nearing the end of a 12-day tour of Africa, he was caught by a TV camera in an unguarded moment late at night, strumming a guitar, an unlit cigar in his mouth.
The sobering truth, though, was that the President’s victory came at a terrible cost. Pyrrhus, the king of ancient Epirus who suffered catastrophic losses while defeating the Romans, famously commented: “Another such victory over the Romans and we are undone.” Clinton’s legal triumph over Jones, the 31-year-old former secretary from Arkansas
Excerpts from Judge Susan Webber Wright’s decision:
‘While the alleged incident in the hotel, if true, was certainly boorish and offensive, the Court has already found that the Governor’s alleged conduct does not constitute sexual assault.'
‘The conduct as alleged by the plaintiff describes a mere sexual proposition or encounter, albeit an odious one, that was relatively brief in duration, did not involve any coercion or threats of reprisals, and was abandoned as soon as plaintiff made clear that the advance was not welcome.’
‘The Court rejects plaintiff’s claim that she was subjected to hostile treatment having tangible effects when she was isolated physically, made to sit in a location from which she was constantly watched, made to sit at her workstation with no work to do, and singled out as the only female employee not to be given flowers on Secretary’s Day. Plaintiff may well have perceived hostility and animus on the part of her supervisors, but these perceptions are merely conclusory in nature and do not, without more, constitute a tangible job detriment.’
once derided as trailer-park trash, may be equally pyrrhic. By the time Judge Wright threw out her case, Jones had already done about as much damage to the President as she could. The lawsuit cost Clinton close to $6 million in legal fees—and incalculably more in moral authority. It led to an embarrassing stream of allegations and admissions about his relationships with women. As a direct result of Jones’s lawsuit, Lewinsky became a household name. Clinton was forced to admit under oath that he slept with Gennifer Flowers— contrary to what he said in 1992 while campaigning for the presidency. Another woman, Kathleen Willey, emerged with a story of being groped by the President just outside the Oval Office, and a childhood friend of Clinton, Dolly Kyle Browning, took to the airwaves to describe what she claimed was a 30-year affair with him.
It seemed as if there was no end to it. Just last week, an actress and former Miss America, Elizabeth Ward Gracen, acknowledged that she, too, slept with Clinton while he was governor of Arkansas in 1983. She had denied it in 1992— under pressure from Clinton’s campaign staff, she said—but now wanted to make it clear that he had not coerced her. ‘We had an intimate evening,” Gracen told the New York Daily News. “Nothing was ever forced. It was completely consensual.”
Jones’s legal defeat may put a stop to that kind of tacky revelation, which was sparked by a subpoena in her suit. Jones had sought an apology and hefty damages (originally $2.8 million, most recently $780,000) for an incident she said happened on May 8, 1991. Then-governor Clinton, she claimed, had a state trooper bring her to a hotel room in Little Rock, Ark., where he exposed himself and asked her for oral sex. Jones sued in 1994, setting off four years of intimate charges and counter-charges. The President tried to delay the suit until after he leaves office in 2001, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that it could go ahead. The case was set to go to trial on May 27—until Wright delivered her bombshell.
Arkansas is a small state, so it was not unusual that Clinton and Wright had crossed paths before. In 1973, when he was teaching at the University of Arkansas, she took his course on admiralty law. Professor Clinton lost most of the final exam papers that year—including Wright’s. He offered his students a B-plus, but Wright wanted an A and insisted on writing another exam. The next year, Wright campaigned for a Republican candidate when Clinton unsuccessfully challenged him for a seat in the House of Representatives. In 1990, President George Bush named her a federal judge. Before she took on Jones’s lawsuit, she had already been involved in the Whitewater saga; she sent former Clinton associate Susan McDougal to jail for 18 months because she refused to testify before Starr’s grand jury.
Now 49, Wright has a reputation as a no-nonsense jurist—something that her 39-page ruling last week made very clear. Wright did not rule on whether the incident that Jones alleged ever took place. Instead, the judge said that even if what Jones claimed happened really did happen, it did not amount to sexual harassment. “Although the governor’s alleged conduct, if true, may certainly be characterized as boorish and offensive,” she wrote, “even a most charitable reading of the record in this case fails to reveal a basis for a claim of criminal sexual assault.” Key to Wright’s ruling was the fact that by Jones’s own account, Clinton asked for sex only once and backed off when she refused. Under Canadian law, a onetime improper act might well lead to a charge of harassment, but the law in Arkansas is less stringent. Clinton’s alleged conduct, Wright said,
“was brief and isolated; did not result in any physical harm [and] did not result in distress so severe that no reasonable person could be expected to endure it.”
Jones had claimed that she suffered in her state job after she rebuffed Clinton. But Wright ruled that she failed to prove that. Jones was not fired, demoted or denied pay raises. Her assertion that, alone among her co-workers, she failed to receive flowers on Secretary’s Day prompted the judge to write acidly that such a slight “does not give rise to a federal cause of action.” And Jones, said Wright, failed to prove that Clinton’s actions constituted an “outrage” under law.
Jones’s allegations, she wrote, “fall far short of the rigorous standards for establishing a claim of outrage under Arkansas law.” The result: a complete victory for the President, and a defeat for Jones so severe that it left her in tears. Her lawyers said she would take a few days to consider the impact of continuing the case on her two young sons before deciding whether to appeal.
Legally, Wright’s decision had no impact on Starr’s Whitewater investigation, a marathon undertaking that has already cost some $50 million. Politically, however, it had an immediate result. “He’s out of the woods as far as the sex scandal goes,” Dick Morris, the political strategist who worked for Clinton on and off from the late 1970s until 1996, told Maclean’s. (Morris resigned due to his own sex scandal involving a prostitute.) “The Republicans are going to run screaming from any impeachment or even censure based on a case that never happened.” Imagine, Morris said, if Congress had been on the verge of impeaching Richard Nixon in 1974—and it was suddenly discovered that the Watergate break-in that gave rise to the coverup never took place: “It sort of pulls the rug out from under you.”
The scandal has damaged Clinton's moral authority
That, however, does not mean that Clinton is home free. Starr made it plain last week that he will continue his investigation into the Lewinsky affair, despite the judgment of Morris and many others that that line of attack is now politically discredited. After disposing of his trash, Starr told reporters that the crimes he is investigating are serious—perjury, subornation of perjury, and obstruction of justice. Regardless of who wins a civil lawsuit, he said, “you cannot defile the temple of justice... you must play by the rules.” Starr may even intensify his pursuit: at week’s end, there were reports that members of his office were debating whether to charge Lewinsky with perjury and perhaps even name Clinton as an unindicted co-conspirator in the crime.
And aside from the Lewinsky case, Starr is due to complete his work soon on the less spectacular scandals that go under the umbrella name of Whitewater. They include not only the financial fallout from the failed Arkansas land deal that Bill and Hillary Clinton were involved in while he was governor, but later controversies such as the firing of the White House travel office and how the White House handled FBI background files on prominent Republicans. Those tangled tales have long receded into the political back-
ground, but Starr’s staff has been doggedly working away at them, and some observers predict that he may produce some surprises when he finally reports to Congress, perhaps early this summer.
Morris, for one, points to recent developments in Little Rock as dangerous for the President. A former Arkansas governor, Jim Guy Tucker, was convicted in 1996 of conspiracy and fraud in the Whitewater scandal, and recently agreed to co-operate with Starr in exchange for a lighter sentence. ‘Tucker turning on Clinton is very serious,” says Morris. The public, he says, has learned to live with allegations of sexual impropriety involving Clinton—but a well-documented charge of financial wrongdoing could be more damaging. Still, Clinton could
survive even that—given his unprecedented popularity and Starr’s political ineptness. “The problem,” says Morris, “is that Starr might have damaged his credibility by pursuing the sex aspect, so no one will listen to him on the money.” Certainly, Clinton’s loyalists do not underestimate Starr. Even as Jones’s defeat dealt the prosecutor a setback, they began another campaign to discredit his Whitewater investigation. They pointed to recent reports detailing previously unknown links between Starr’s key Whitewater witness, David Hale, and right-wing groups that have financed a range of attacks on Clinton. The on-line magazine Salon has documented payments to Hale from conservative activists who are part of an antiClinton campaign funded by the President’s richest and most implacable critic, Pittsburgh billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife. Scaife has funnelled hundreds of thousands of dollars through charitable foundations to groups dedicated to digging up dirt on Clinton. One of them, the conservative magazine The American Spectator, ran an operation from 1993 to 1997 known as “the Arkansas Project”— the source of the payments to Hale. Attorney General Janet Reno said last week she wants that investigated, and White House operatives singled it out as more proof that Starr’s investigation is tainted. Right-wingers, said Clinton loyalist James Carville, have come up with millions “to pay people to tell lies about the President.”
As for Clinton, he returned from Africa free for the first time in years of a huge legal shadow. The opinion polls, as they have all year, provided him with much comfort: his job-approval rating remained above 65 per cent. But the surveys have more troubling news for a secondterm president looking towards the judgment of history. They show most Americans simply do not believe him about his private life, and the drumbeat of scandal has made a deep impact. Pollsters working for the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press asked what Clinton’s presidency will be remembered for. Fully 56 per cent of those questioned replied “scandals.” Only 14 per cent mentioned the economy—even as the Dow Jones index flirted with 9,000. No wonder, then, that Dick Morris, who has worked closely with Clinton over two decades, described his former boss as shell-shocked after months of assaults. “He’s on autopilot now,” said Morris. “He’s in a kind ofhunkered-down, fight-for-your-job, save-your-ass mode.” After last week’s victory, that task looked a little easier. □