The Clinton Sex Scandal

The Clinton Sex Scandal

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 30 1998 3:30 AM

The Clinton Sex Scandal

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       Soon we may be debating the topic: Who Lost Clinton? The obvious answer is: Clinton himself. But assuming that the chief executive and members of his immediate family are not eligible, my nomination would be his high-priced legal advocate, Robert S. Bennett. Almost from the moment he began working for the president in 1994, Bennett's efforts have vaunted attorney's ego over client's interests. There's a prima facie case that but for his lardaceous lawyer, Clinton would not be in the gumbo he's in right now.
       Bennett has screwed up through his use of bullying tactics and his blabbermouth approach to litigation. Instead of discreetly quieting down potential trouble, Vernon Jordan-style, he has courted disaster at every turn by gratuitously inciting the people in the best position to do serious harm to Bill Clinton. Strong evidence suggests that the two women who have done the most to put the Clinton presidency in jeopardy--Paula Jones and Linda Tripp--are pursuing a vendetta against Bennett, rather than against his client.
       From the start, Bennett has made a hash of the president's defense. He did this first by injecting a gratuitous element of class nastiness. At a press conference he called to respond to Jones' original filing, he sound-bit that her lawsuit was "tabloid trash with a legal caption." The word "trash"--white, trailer, tabloid, or other--should not be used in proximity to Arkansans of low socioeconomic status. Unless, that is, you want the menfolk coming after you with shotguns.
       That appears to be essentially what happened in the Paula Jones case. Steve Jones says that it was Bennett's nastiness about his wife that prevented her from taking her lawyers' advice to settle. "If it had not been for Bob Bennett coming out on TV and saying that Paula's story was 'tabloid trash for cash,' ... this whole thing could have been settled a long time ago with a quiet apology," Steve Jones told Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, a Clinton crazy who writes for the London Telegraph "He chose the wrong girl to pick a fight with, didn't he?" Jones continued. "And now he's brought the President to the brink of impeachment. If I could give one piece of advice to Bill Clinton, it's get rid of Bob Bennett. Fast." (Click here to read the full text of this story.) Strange Bedfellow, it should be pointed out, gave the president the same advice last summer (click here).
       After Jones backed away from settling, Bennett moved to incentivize her. When Jones' lawyers said they were going to subpoena other women they suspected had been propositioned by Clinton, Bennett threatened tit for tat. "As my mother once said to me, be careful what you ask for--you may get it," he told Sam Donaldson. "I had a dog like that, who just wanted to catch cars. And he successfully caught one one day. And I have a new dog." Bennett warned specifically that he would put Jones' "reputation" at issue. It was also learned that his firm had flown to Washington a man who claimed to have had intimate relations with Jones. When feminists and others denounced this blackmail, Bennett went on Nightline and asserted with a straight face that he had never intended to drag in Jones' sexual history.
       A more discreet lawyer, one less thuggish and narcissistic, one less intent on fighting his case on Larry King and DonImus, might have settled the case on tolerable terms. Jones very nearly accepted a $700,000 payment and a presidential statement of regret for harm to her reputation with no admission of wrongdoing. Because the insurance companies were then on the hook for payment, it might even have been possible to salvage a bit of presidential dignity. Instead, Bennett pushed the case in the direction of trial, lost the insurance companies, and turned Paula Jones into a MIRV missile pointed at the White House.
       In the instance of Linda Tripp, he similarly took a stink bomb and made it into a ton of TNT--which he then tossed into his client's lap. As it has been widely chronicled, Bennett incited Tripp against the president by casting doubt on her truthfulness. This summer, Tripp was quoted in Newsweek claiming that Kathleen Willey had told her after she emerged from the Oval Office in a disheveled state that she (Willey) had been groped by Clinton. Instead of ignoring this accusation (which nobody was paying much attention to) or simply denying the charge that Clinton had fondled Willey, Bennett responded: "I smell a rat. Linda Tripp is not to be believed." Furious at Bennett for questioning her integrity, she became a real rat, secretly tape recording her phone conversations with Monica Lewinsky and turning them over to the independent counsel's office. The rest is history.
       Though the result may be less obvious, Bennett has also done his part to goad independent counsel Ken Starr. Soon after Starr was appointed, Bennett called for him to resign because of his right-wing connections. When Starr announced his plans to step down and become dean of Pepperdine Law School, and then changed his mind, Bennett blasted him for retreating in the face of criticism. "Imagine how you would feel being investigated by a man who was under such pressure to bring indictments and who so quickly changed his mind in the face of criticism," he said in a speech reprinted as an op-ed column in the Washington Post. Calling Starr a weak-willed coward hardly seems a viable way to calm him down.
       Bennett's basic problem is that he is totally incapable of keeping his mouth shut. Blabbing to the press, on and off the record, is his approach to cases that attract media interest. As he told the Los Angeles Times a while ago, "While 'no comment' is perfectly appropriate in 80% or 90% of one's cases, rarely is it appropriate in those cases where you're representing a very high-profile client." But whom is all this $500-an-hour spin designed to benefit? In a piece about him published in the Washington Post "Style" section this week, Bennett came off as far more concerned about his own reputation than about the fate of his most famous client. If Clinton does fall, I expect we'll see Bennett on all his favorite TV shows explaining how it happened--and why it wasn't his fault.

Jacob Weisberg is Slate's chief political correspondent.