The Tabloid Traumas of the Talk-Show President : When the Motive Appears to Be Money

<i> William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN</i>

Imagine what could happen if Paula Corbin Jones’ lawsuit goes to trial. Her attorneys spend months digging up dirt on Bill Clinton. They chase down every rumor and innuendo, interview anyone who ever knew him, leak every juicy item to the press.

The President is required to submit to a humiliating physical examination to determine if he has “distinguishing characteristics in (his) genital area,” as Jones alleges. He is forced to testify about the most intimate details of his personal life--and defend his testimony under cross-examination.

The lawsuit knocks all other news off the front page, just as Watergate did for a year and a half. The case preoccupies the press and immobilizes the White House. For as long as it takes, the country is without a President.


Which is fine with Clinton-haters. For them, better no President than this one. They rub their hands with glee at each new revelation, more or less as Nixon-haters did during Watergate.

There’s a difference, however. Watergate dealt with abuses of power committed by the President while in office. So did Iran-Contra. Both Whitewater and the Jones case, however, relate to Clinton’s activities before he took office. There is no precedent for dealing with cases like that.

We know, for example, that a President cannot be indicted for a crime while in office. He has to be impeached and removed from office first. Thus, Richard M. Nixon became an “unindicted co-conspirator” in Watergate. Once he left office, of course, Nixon was eminently indictable. That’s why President Gerald R. Ford felt he had to pardon him.

We also know that a President cannot be sued for his official actions as President. Political remedies, up to and including impeachment, must be sought. But can the President be sued for personal behavior before he took office? Who knows?

No one expects either Whitewater or the Jones suit to end up in impeachment. They may not even end up with indictments or judgments against the President. But they could still paralyze the presidency for the duration of the spectacle. Our long national nightmare may be just beginning.

Which is why Robert S. Bennett, Clinton’s expensive new lawyer, has one clear imperative: Keep the Jones case from going to trial. Settle it if possible, but without any hint of a payoff. (Clinton is the President, not a pop star.) Drag it out forever. Seek a quick dismissal. Claim presidential immunity, at least until Clinton leaves office. Do something--anything. But keep it out of court.

As long as the case stays out of court, damage can be limited. So far, it has been. It’s not so much because people believe Clinton is totally blameless. His lawyer’s assertion that Clinton does not remember if he ever met Jones sounds a bit evasive, like “I didn’t inhale.” Nonetheless, polls reveal that most Americans are not inclined to believe Jones.

Why not? Because they think she has a motive to lie, or at least exaggerate. It’s the same motive Gennifer Flowers had when she claimed to be Clinton’s tootsie during the 1992 campaign. It’s a motive Americans understand: money.

When people heard Flowers was being paid a six-figure sum for her story by a supermarket tabloid, that was the end of her credibility--tapes or no tapes. When people heard Jones was suing Clinton for $700,000, it undermined her argument that “this case is not about money . . . this case is about justice.”

Jones got the message. Now her lawyer says she will donate any judgment she receives, less expenses, to a charity. OK, but what about interview fees and book rights and TV deals and movie contracts? Jones reportedly has a deal with her attorney to split those proceeds.

Money is the reason Jones is getting a more skeptical reaction than Anita F. Hill did. When Hill testified--reluctantly--against Clarence Thomas in 1991, almost no one believed then, or now, that she was doing it to make money. Hill’s supporters challenged critics by asking, “If she’s lying, what’s her motive?”

Hill’s critics speculated wildly. Did she have a book contract? Was she what one senator called “a zealot”? Sen. Howell T. Heflin (D-Ala.) asked the most memorable question: “Prof. Hill, are you a scoooorned woman?” None of those motives stuck.

Nor does there seem to be a financial motive for the women accusing Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) of sexual harassment. But Jones’ supporters, like Flowers’ supporters, dare not ask, “If she’s lying, what’s her motive?” It’s there for all to see. Money.

And politics. The White House claims that Jones is being manipulated by Clinton’s political enemies--it’s “really just another effort to rewrite the results of the election,” Bennett said. Evidence for that argument is pretty strong.

The earliest story about Jones and Clinton appeared in a conservative magazine in January. Jones first made her allegations public in February, at a meeting of conservative activists in Washington. Veteran Clinton-haters were there to support her. Accuracy in Media, a conservative press watchdog, ran ads in major newspapers protesting that the mainstream press refused to carry her story. She has done TV interviews with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

That’s what makes women’s rights leaders suspicious. Jones is being supported by people who never cared about women’s rights before. That doesn’t mean she’s lying, of course. After all, there’s reason to be suspicious of Clinton, too--including his own admission of marital problems during the 1992 campaign. And it doesn’t mean she’s “a zealot,” either. It looks like a mutuality of interests--she wants money and fame, her supporters want to destroy Clinton.

So what if Jones is being used by the right? Wasn’t Hill used by the left? Liberal activists leaked Hill’s allegations to the press and forced the Senate Judiciary Committee to reopen its hearings. Wasn’t their motive to destroy Thomas?

For the right, this is pay-back time. Conservatives wear “I believe Paula” buttons in Congress. It’s their way of saying to liberals, “In your face.” The coarsening of American public life continues.

Why is this happening? Because two trends in U.S. politics have collided explosively--ideology and populism.

Political activists have become bitterly polarized. Liberal and conservative operatives don’t just dislike each other. They dream of destroying each other. And the weapons they use--talk radio, campaign ads, the tabloid press--have become more powerful and more destructive. The slogan of today’s political warfare is, “Whatever it takes.” Ordinary Americans are overwhelmed by the spectacle, but most don’t care enough to take sides.

In the populist era, politicians have replaced parties with their own personal followings. Voters support them--not their ideas or parties. When politics is about personalities, there is only one way to discredit a politician. Personally. Character attacks, negative campaigning and scandals have become the normal mode of politics. If you want to discredit Thomas or Clinton, don’t challenge their ideas. No one cares. Expose them as bad people.

Conservatives forget one thing about Anita Hill, however. It didn’t work. Thomas is on the Supreme Court. The Thomas hearings turned into a de facto trial. Since Hill couldn’t prove her charges against Thomas, the Senate couldn’t deny him confirmation. To do so would have been to find him guilty.

But Hill’s testimony had another, unintended effect. She raised the country’s consciousness about sexual harassment. Women identified with Hill and let men know that, yes, they were seething with anger over sexual harassment. That was news to a lot of men who, for the first time, began to “get it.” Jones’ allegations could also have an unintended effect. She is raising public consciousness of the fact that some sexual-harassment claims may simply be malicious.

In the end, Clinton will probably survive the same way Thomas survived. If the charges against him can’t be proved, the voters will give the President the benefit of the doubt, just as they did Thomas. Giving the accused the benefit of the doubt is the best antidote to poisonous politics.*