Clinton’s First Reaction? April Fools’ Joke
When the president first heard the news in a phone call from halfway around the world, he thought it was an April Fools’ prank.
At the other end of the line was Robert S. Bennett, Clinton’s personal attorney, telling him that a federal judge in Arkansas had just tossed out the 4-year-old sexual harassment lawsuit filed by former Arkansas state employee Paula Corbin Jones.
It sounded too good to be true, particularly on April 1. But it was no joke, Bennett insisted, and the president soon realized just how profoundly his fortunes had improved.
Although he engaged in no public celebration of the unexpected ruling, he was later observed reveling in the privacy of his suite at the Le Meridien Presidente Hotel in Dakar.
A Fox television camera crew captured the president’s reaction from a public courtyard outside the hotel. In the videotaped footage, Clinton is seen with a big cigar in his mouth, strumming a guitar, pounding on an African drum and eating dinner with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and a few staff members, including senior advisor Bruce R. Lindsey.
Throughout his six-nation tour of Africa, the president had enjoyed something of a reprieve from the sex and cover-up controversies that have hounded him relentlessly in recent weeks. To the surprise of many White House officials, the large press contingent accompanying Clinton had focused primarily on the president’s travels, not on his travails.
Judge Susan Webber Wright’s ruling changed all that. A sudden jolt of adrenaline surged through the travel-weary press corps. Television monitors were cranked way up. Correspondents traded humorous asides about the extraordinary luck of a president who has survived one potential scandal after another during his political career.
When he walked to the podium at the front of the filing center in Dakar, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry struggled to keep a smile off his face.
McCurry initially joked that he was bringing National Security Advisor Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger back to expand on an earlier Africa briefing. Then he tried to deflect questions about the judge’s decision in the Jones case, directing reporters to call the White House counsel’s office for comment.
Throughout Clinton’s 12-day Africa tour, McCurry had successfully dodged questions about the Jones lawsuit. This time, it did not work. Reporters persisted and McCurry eventually relented, answering their questions in a controlled and measured fashion.
About 9 p.m., after a day spent visiting a village and a military base in rural Senegal, the president was given a message to call Bennett in Washington.
When Clinton heard the news, McCurry said, “he asked if it was, in fact, an April Fools’ joke.”
After receiving assurances that Bennett was serious, Clinton thanked him for his “fine work” on the case, McCurry said.
The spokesman said that the president’s first reaction was to tell his wife, who has been with him throughout the tour of Africa.
White House officials did their best to avoid gloating. McCurry resisted characterizing Clinton’s reaction, saying the president “believes that the court’s ruling speaks more eloquently than he could on this matter.”
When pressed, McCurry acknowledged that at least some White House officials were “surprised” by the news and that the president was gratified to learn the judge had ruled the legal grounds were insufficient to allow the case to go to trial.
“I think the president is pleased to receive the vindication he’s been waiting a long time for,” McCurry said.