Ever since Miami Herald reporters caught Florida model Donna Rice leaving the Washington townhouse of former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart before dawn one spring day in 1987, politicians' sex lives have seemed to be fair game -- not only for grocery store tabloids but also for the establishment press and TV networks.
So when a former Arkansas state employee held a news conference in Washington on Feb. 11 to charge President Clinton with an especially crude sexual advance three years earlier, scandal watchers might have expected to see the story on the front page or the evening news.
In fact, however, the news media generally shied away from the story. Only when Paula Corbin Jones decided to file a federal civil rights suit 12 weeks later did her accusation of sexual harassment reach front pages, magazine covers and network newscasts.
The initial media silence has drawn varying interpretations. Journalists offered standard editorial reasons for holding the story -- such as Jones' lack of solid corroboration or her use of a conservative forum to make the charges. Some media observers said news organizations had become more sensitive to investigations of sexual conduct by politicians since the Hart episode revealed just how powerful a sexpos could be.
But some conservative activists and media critics charged that “liberal” news media were simply letting Democrat Clinton off the hook. As proof, they pointed to the limited coverage given to Gennifer Flowers' claims in the 1992 campaign of a 12-year affair with Clinton and to the more recent allegations from former Arkansas state troopers of helping arrange Clinton's sexual liaisons while he was governor.
Others, including some non-mainstream feminists, saw evidence of a class bias. These critics charged that reporters and editors had less sympathy for a one-time clerical worker with teased hair than they had for law school Professor Anita Hill in her accusations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas three years earlier.
Once Jones went to court, however, the media could hardly ignore the story. Reporting the details of the suit posed some tricky editorial issues, however. The stories paraphrased Jones's central allegation by saying she accused Clinton of having lowered his pants and asked her to engage in oral sex. Within a few days, however, some columnists sympathetic to Clinton put into print the graphic quote (“Kiss it”) that Jones attributed to Clinton -- in order to show the anecdote was unbelievable.
Legal experts had conflicting views of the plausibility of Jones' allegation. Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor, defense attorney and syndicated columnist, called Jones' charges stronger than Hill's. “By any standard of judgment, Miss Jones' charges against Mr. Clinton are far more serious, have more prima facie corroboration and are far more consistent with other allegations against the alleged perpetrator than were Miss Hill's charges against Mr. Thomas,” Dershowitz wrote. But he acknowledged it was “too early to make an informed judgment.”
When the newspaper Legal Times asked eight well-known litigators to read and evaluate the complaint, however, most of them expressed strong skepticism. Fred Bartlit Jr., a corporate lawyer in Chicago, called Jones' central allegation “inherently not credible.” Washington attorney Stephen Tallent said the suit was “drafted not with legal skill, but with talents more appropriate to a John Belushi/National Lampoon movie.”
Clinton's own lawyer, Robert S. Bennett, denied Jones' allegation within an hour after the suit was filed May 6. “The president adamantly denies that this incident occurred,” Bennett said. He also raised the possibility of seeking to have the suit dismissed on grounds of presidential immunity.
“If you permit the president to be sued and permit the case to go forward . . . think of the consequences,” Bennett told a news conference. “There could be thousands of lawsuits. . . . Your president would be tied down for 365 days being asked questions by lawyers. There's just something wrong with that.”
In 1982 the Supreme Court ruled in Nixon v. Fitzgerald that the president is immune from civil suit for any official actions. “Because of the singular importance of the president's duties,” Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. wrote in the 5-4 ruling, “diversion of his energies by concern with private lawsuits would raise unique risks to the effective functioning of government.” The decision barred a wrongful termination suit against Nixon by a fired Air Force whistle-blower, Ernest Fitzgerald.
Legal experts say there apparently are no published court decisions involving suits against a president for conduct occurring before his presidency. The Justice Department is considered likely to support a presidential immunity plea by arguing that the suit against Clinton should either be dismissed or delayed until after he leaves office.