Did Clinton Harass Paula Jones?

Did Clinton Harass Paula Jones?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Nov. 16 1996 3:30 AM

Did Clinton Harass Paula Jones?

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Dear Stuart:
       The more I read your typically carefully argued response, the more I'm left with this question (I will answer yours, I promise): Who is the villain here? Paula Jones claims she was harassed. She's allied herself with the Clinton attack dogs and the conservative movement in America--she did, I assume, know who Jerry Falwell was--and she's got more help than she needs and more press than she deserves, and she's likely to make more money off this than she ever would have in life. She is very unlikely to win in a court of law, since I do believe, and you'd at least concede it's arguable, that the facts she alleged are insufficient to state a claim. Besides, when it comes right down to it, this is one of those cases where truth is inevitably elusive: It is ultimately what he said and what she said, and the way such credibility issues inevitably get resolved (by attacking the woman as a nut or slut) is both likely to succeed, just based on what I read in your article, and as ugly as anything that happened 10 years ago.
       So, what are we fighting about?
       Are you after feminists for not embracing Paula Jones?
       She doesn't need me, and I refuse to take the bait. She has allied herself with people who preach hatred against decent people because of their sexual orientation, for starters. She is trying to bring down a president who will do more about the things I care about than anyone else I know who could get elected. I like Bill Clinton. I think that she's exaggerating about what happened to her, at best. I think that treating all incidents of shabbiness in the same category as serious sexual harassment risks pushing it all under the rug, and I'd invoke the Army as proof on that one. I want the system to be fair to women, not to victimize them, but I also want it to be fair to men. I want it to be there for legitimate and serious claims of abuse, not pushed over in the backlash against criminalizing shabby behavior.
       Are you after the press for not publicizing Paula Jones?
       For not, say, putting her on the cover of a national legal publication with a full-color photograph and a 15,000-word piece written by America's premier legal journalist?
       For not sponsoring a dialogue about her in SLATE magazine?
       Is there anyone in America who doesn't know who Paula Jones is? My God, you can't tell me that the press hasn't covered her charges in greater detail than, say, Republicans blocking progressive judicial appointees--a subject which outrages me much more, and doesn't earn anybody the cover of anybody's magazine. Do you remember the woman from San Diego, the most widely respected judge of the superior court there, by everybody, whose nomination to the federal district court had to be withdrawn because of Republican opposition based on the fact that some years before, she had awarded custody to the same sex partner of a child's parent, after the parent died. Remember her? What was her name? I don't remember. Nobody forgets Paula Jones.
       There are two kinds of media in this country: the conservative media, and the nonconservative media. The conservative media--i.e., the Wall Street Journal editorial page--has a side and plays it; they only attack my friends. The nonconservative media attacks everybody. There are lots of liberals in the media, but there is no liberal media. Besides, all those liberals work for conservative bosses--or at least politically sensitive ones, which is certainly lucky for Clarence Thomas this week (the plug having been pulled on Strange Justice, the Clarence Thomas story as a movie).
       Me for being inconsistent?
       I don't even pretend to value consistency, if you want to know the truth. It's honesty I strive for. I teach the same subjects year in and year out--criminal law, sex discrimination, and undergraduate law and politics. I try to think of them fresh each year, pushing myself always to challenge whatever solutions I came to the year before, to see if they hold, to use whatever wisdom and experience comes from life and age and thought to see if I understand things better. Otherwise, I'd be a lousy teacher. I've been teaching the gender course for 10 years (I didn't start till I had tenure, since the course isn't considered serious by some); my thinking has surely changed in many areas, particularly since I began looking to the future through the eyes of my son, three-and-a-half years ago, as well as my daughter.
       Having said that, I've probably been more consistent in my views on Anita Hill than some other things you could find. Here's the story, and what those quotes mean.
       I happened to be home riding my exercise bike when Anita Hill had her first news conference at the University of Oklahoma, so I watched it. I had two reactions.
       First, what a jerk Clarence Thomas is, a conclusion I'd already reached. Here's a guy who wouldn't be where he is but for affirmative action, and opposes it; who's seen his own family forced to depend on welfare, and denounces welfare recipients; the only man in America who claims never to have had a discussion about Roe vs. Wade (such an obvious lie); a guy with a randy reputation (the porno stories were all around) who has made common cause to become the black poster boy of the conservative right wing, that stands opposed to civil liberties. What Anita Hill said about him fit right in. Here was an obviously naive and traditional woman, a black woman, the low person on the totem pole, and he chooses her as his foil, tells jokes he knows will shock her at her expense. Step on the only one beneath you. Hypocrisy. Again. What a guy.
       Second, they're going to eat her alive. Lunch. This woman has no idea what is about to happen to her. But I do. This is where my two lives collide. I'm probably one of the few people who is equally expert at both how you get victimized by the system as a victim of sex abuse, and by the Bush campaign team as a political opponent. She is going to get killed.
       So I sat down and wrote a piece whose basic audience was the Senate Judiciary Committee, for the New York Times I think (you don't have to look it up, it's just part of the story), that argued that whatever they did, they shouldn't let the hearings that were about to begin amount to a victimization of the alleged victim. Don't attack her, I said. Understand that women don't always react to sex abuse the way men might expect them to, and that doesn't mean they're lying. Tom Donilon, an old friend of mine from politics and a trusted Biden adviser, had been brought in by Biden to help put together the hearings, and he called me and asked if I would talk to Sen. Biden about the argument I was making in the piece. Sure. So the day before the hearings opened, I had a very long conversation with Joe Biden about not putting this woman on trial, and not letting the hearing degenerate into a pious attack on her. We seemed in such complete agreement that I remember him asking me if I'd write his opening statement, and me saying no because I had decided that I was only going to write what I believed, under my own name. Momentous moment. Donilon reassured concerned women, as did I, that I was among those who'd had a lengthy conversation with Biden, and that he got it.
       The next day I turned on my TV and I was horrified. I watched this woman get attacked by a bunch of pompous, pious Republican hypocrites (led by Arlen Specter, trying to cozy up to the right in his state), and it still makes me mad. Biden seemed, at best, afraid to offend. The lesson I learned in the 1988 campaign--painfully, by the way, and over and over--is that when you're in the middle of a fight, you fight back, you don't opine about whether fighting is right.
       So, some answers:
       1. Do I think Paula Jones' claim is stronger than the media has let on? No. If anything, it's probably weaker. The media has already convicted the president on character grounds, as a womanizer, based on the accounts of two women neither of whose credibility has been tested in a court of law. Paula Jones is already famous. The presumption of innocence doesn't apply to certain crimes--alleged rapist is not good on your résumé--and the president certainly doesn't get it.
       2. Do I mean to suggest that Paula Jones is a liar and false accuser?
       She may be. How could anyone know for sure, one way or another? I don't know her, but I do know the president, and the conduct she describes is totally at odds with the man I know.
       In my experience in other instances of sexual abuse, there is often a tendency--particularly in cases about the line between sex and abuse--for everybody to lie, at least a little, to make themselves look better and the other party look worse. You say you screamed; maybe you didn't. You say she said yes; maybe she didn't say anything at all. The party who talks the most in advance of trial tends to lose, because they get caught in all the little inconsistencies that emerge in such retellings. Consider William Kennedy Smith and Patricia Bowman: She did all the depos in advance, and got into a mess on her stockings, and their whereabouts, and lost; or Mike Tyson, who tried to talk his way out of charges by talking to the prosecution and testifying at the grand jury, and ended up talking his way into prison.
       So maybe she came to the room. Maybe the president came on to her. Maybe she came on to him.
       3-6. Is there a diabolical conspiracy to get the president on the part of Paula Jones' supporting witnesses? No. Probably not. Just an effort to stand up for a friend, remember as best you can what it is she told you five years ago, and defend her against other relatives and acquaintances who are saying that she is a publicity-seeking liar, who offered to be the governor's girlfriend. Are her friends telling you today exactly what Paula told them five years ago? Who knows? These women need to be cross-examined before they convict the president. Besides, it's hearsay anyway: They can testify as to what she told them happened, not what happened. They say: Their friend wouldn't make this up. I say: My friend has more class than that. Whom do you believe?
       What do I mean when I say that the president doesn't sexually abuse people? Just that. This is the only case I know of where any claim of abuse has been made against him. There is a difference between sex and rape, between flirtation and harassment, between sexual autonomy and sexual coercion.
       Some psychobabble, which you're free to ignore. Rapists and harassers are not generally sexy guys who like women and step over the line. They are, in my experience, very angry men with very negative, hostile--even violent--views of women, which is why, when you're on the receiving end, it feels like violence and not sex. It is.
       7-8. Am I troubled that the president has told his lawyers to say that he doesn't recall, etc.?
       What do you want him to say? The president's lawyer wouldn't be a very good one if he let his client say any more than that, in advance of trial. Doesn't the man also have the right to have the case decided in a court of law, not in a debate sponsored by the tabloids? Are you damning him for not trying the case in the press?
       9-11. Anita Hill again. How dare we celebrate her? How dare she be honored by the ABA? She was the first woman to step forward on the American stage and complain of sexual harassment, and she was viciously attacked for it by a bunch of hypocritical senators and a band of political operatives who thought no more of the Supreme Court than to use it as a place for sticking it to the civil-rights community by giving them someone who was a dead ringer for Uncle Tom. The most powerful political operation of the time, the Bush attack squad, went after her tooth and nail, and she never wavered. I thought she was telling the truth. So do most Americans today, by the way. And she was hammered for it. In front of her parents. You don't pick your fights. Hers turned out to be an important one.
       12. Are we inconsistent in supporting Anita Hill and not Paula Jones? Consistent with what? With the goal of protecting women from sexual abuse? I think that goal is served by supporting Bill Clinton. I think that it is important for us, feminists in particular, to acknowledge that taking sexual harassment seriously doesn't mean that every time a woman complains, the man should be damned. How you think about feminism is relevant.
       Here's my bottom line. I don't want a sex police in this country, and I certainly don't want to be a member of it. I'll take care of my life, and let others take care of theirs. There's plenty of very serious abuse out there, if the press is interested. I'll give you a dozen people with worse stories to tell than Paula's, who don't have ideologues eager to help them. Besides, 2001 isn't so far away.

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All the best,
Susan

       P.S. I think my hypos were pretty good, even if you didn't like them. In particular, I'm surprised that you suggest that a naked breast is somehow not a good substitute for a penis. Really? Does Sally agree on this?
       P.P.S. What's good for the goose may be good for the gander, but is it good for the country? Republicans destroy the president's reputation. Democrats destroy the speaker's. Bork is unconfirmable, and so is Peter Edelman and probably Larry Tribe. I think there's a value to having moderates on the court, but I also think we've gone too far in making good people unconfirmable. Should consistency push us down the side of a mountain?