When Bill Clinton went to Washington, rumors and accusations from his past in Arkansas came to the capital with him. But even his most dedicated political enemies couldn’t predict where their efforts would lead.
In the third episode of our series on Clinton’s impeachment, Leon Neyfakh meets two men who tried to spread dirt about the president and describes how their efforts led to Paula Jones’ groundbreaking sexual harassment lawsuit.
Slate Plus members get a bonus episode of Slow Burn every week. This week, we hear from Walter Dellinger, who argued Clinton v. Jones before the Supreme Court while serving as the president’s acting solicitor general. Leon also discusses the making of Episode 3 with Slate senior producer Mary Wilson and Slow Burn researcher Madeline Kaplan.
If you are logged into your Slate Plus account, you can find this week’s bonus episode in the player below, or in your members-only podcast feed. Not yet a member? Click here to join.
Notes on Episode 3
In researching Episode 3 of Slow Burn, we made use of the following sources:
Brock, David. Blinded by the Right, Crown, 2002.
Conason, Joe and Lyons, Gene. The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton, Thomas Dunne Books, 2001.
Gormley, Ken. The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr, Crown/Archetype, 1999.
Sabato, Larry and Lichter, S. Robert. When Should the Watchdogs Bark? Center for Media and Public Affairs, Washington, D.C., 1994.
Maraniss, David. First in His Class, Simon & Schuster, 1995.
Stewart, James B. Blood Sport, Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Toobin, Jeffrey. A Vast Conspiracy, Random House, 1999.
Film and TV
American Experience: Clinton, PBS. Goodman, Barak and Durrance, Chris, 2012.
Baker, Peter. “Clinton ‘Adamantly’ Denies Jones Allegations,” the Washington Post, July 4, 1997.
Brock, David. “Confessions of a Right-Wing Hit Man,” Esquire, July 1997.
Brock, David. “His Cheatin’ Heart,” the American Spectator, Jan. 1994.
Broder, John M. and Rosenstiel, Thomas B. “Clinton’s Accuser Goes On the Interview Circuit,” the Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1994.
“Declaration of Paula Jones,” the Washington Post, March 13, 1998.
Ellis, David. “The Perils of Paula,” People magazine, May 23, 1994.
Frammolino, Ralph. “Clinton Joined ROTC After He Got Draft Notice,” the Los Angeles Times, April 5, 1992.
Frantz, Douglas and Rempel, William C. “Troopers Say Clinton Sought Silence on Personal Affairs,” the Los Angeles Times, Dec. 21, 1993.
Friend, Tad. “White Trash Nation,” New York magazine, Aug. 22, 1994.
Isikoff, Michael and Marcus, Ruth. “Clinton Tried to Derail Troopers’ Sex Allegations,” the Washington Post, Dec. 21, 1993.
Jackson, Robert L. “Falwell Selling Tape That Attacks Clinton,” the Los Angeles Times, May 14, 1994.
Kurtz, Howard. “The Spectator’s Far Right Jab,” the Washington Post, Dec. 24, 1993.
“Paula Jones’s Credibility Gap,” Newsweek, May 22, 1994.
Marcus, Ruth. “First Lady Lashes Out at Allegations,” the Washington Post, Dec. 22, 1993.
Marcus, Ruth. “President Denies Any Wrongdoing; Trooper Disavows Job-for-Silence Report,” the Washington Post, Dec. 23, 1993.
Mayer, Jane. “Distinguishing Characteristics,” the New Yorker, July 7, 1997.
Rempel, William C. “Vietnam Draft Issue Soured Ambitious Pair’s Friendship,” the Los Angeles Times, Sept. 26, 1992.
Rich, Frank. “The Real Paula Jones?” the New York Times, May 8, 1994.
Rimer, Sarah. “President’s Accuser: a Perennial Foe Who Still Insists He Is Clinton’s Friend,” the New York Times, Jan. 2, 1994.
Wines, Michael. “Troopers Who Accuse the President Are Questioned on Their Own Pasts,” the New York Times, Dec. 24, 1993.
York, Byron. “The Life and Death of the American Spectator,” the Atlantic, November 2001.
Podcast produced by Leon Neyfakh and Andrew Parsons. Research assistance from Madeline Kaplan.
This is a lightly edited transcript of Episode 3:
Cliff Jackson insists that he never hated Bill Clinton. Here’s what he said about it when I interviewed him earlier this year:
CLIFF JACKSON: With all my reservations about his character, I still thought that he had the potential to be one of the greatest presidents we’ve ever had.
Jackson said pretty much the same thing back in 1994, when it was clear that he was doing everything he could to weaken Clinton’s presidency:
CLIFF JACKSON: I am not an enemy of Bill Clinton. Enemy, to me, implies personal animus. Personal animosity. And I don’t have that. That’s not why I’m doing what I’m doing.
You’ll hear about what Cliff Jackson was doing, and why, in just a second.
First, I want to tell you the story of how he and Clinton met.
It goes back to 1968, when the Vietnam War was at its height, and Clinton and Jackson were both enrolled at Oxford. The future president was on a Rhodes scholarship, and Jackson was on a Fulbright.
CLIFF JACKSON: He came by my room and introduced himself. He was gregarious, affable fella. Upbeat, very loquacious, loved to hear himself talk. And normally that personality type doesn’t resonate with me. But he was from Arkansas, and I was from Arkansas—we were two Arkies at Oxford, so we became friends.
Besides being from Arkansas, Clinton and Jackson had something else in common: They were both interested in politics, and they both had plans to run for elected office when they came home from Oxford.
In a lot of ways, though, the two young men were opposites. For one thing, Clinton was a Democrat, and Jackson was a Republican. For another, Clinton was outgoing and popular, while Jackson was kind of a sad sack. The journalist David Maraniss once wrote that Jackson “spent most of the first term at … Oxford cold and lonely, taking some small comfort in hot soup he cooked up in a crock every afternoon.”
After returning to Arkansas, Clinton and Jackson stayed in touch, but their lives went in different directions. In 1976, Jackson ran for district attorney in Pulaski County, Arkansas. He lost the race, but he assured me that he was not upset about it.
CLIFF JACKSON: I came very close to winning and was thoroughly happy I lost because I really didn’t want the job. I just let people talk me into it.
That same year, Clinton ran for Arkansas attorney general—and he won. Two years after that, at the age of 32, Clinton leveled up again …
BILL CLINTON: I ask those who have believed in me and those who have doubted me to join in common purpose.
… by becoming the youngest governor in America.
BILL CLINTON: Let us trust each other and work to forge a future—a future that will make us proud that in our time we gave our best—God bless you all and thank you very much.
Cliff Jackson, who by this point was a successful lawyer in private practice, watched from afar as his old friend became one of the Democratic Party’s brightest young stars. And even if it’s true that Jackson didn’t hate Clinton, he did believe that he could see through him.
CLIFF JACKSON: Bill Clinton could be in a room with 12 different people who hold 12 different, slightly different positions on one issue. He will talk to each one of those people, look them intently in the eye, say things that appeals to them, and persuade each one of the 12 when they leave that room, “Oh yes, I heard what he said to the other 11 people. But look, I know Bill is really with me.”
This is a fairly common refrain about Clinton—that he’s such a good politician that you can’t trust anything he says, and you can’t even trust your own reaction to him. But Jackson was not your average Clinton skeptic. Starting with the 1992 presidential campaign, he became a top anti-Clinton activist.
REPORTER 1: The allegations are being orchestrated by Little Rock attorney and Clinton archrival, Cliff Jackson.
REPORTER 2: Jackson insists that his motives are pure. That all he’s trying to do is just provide a choice between reality and political image making.
CLIFF JACKSON: When a candidate is packaged in a manner that is 180 degrees from the truth, we need to know that.
Jackson’s first move against Clinton was relatively modest. After starting an organization called the Alliance for Rebirth of an Independent American Spirit, he published a full-page newspaper ad criticizing Clinton’s fiscal policies. The ad was headlined, “Please, Governor Clinton—don’t do to America what you did to Arkansas.”
Jackson’s next step was more dramatic: He inserted himself into one of the biggest controversies of the campaign. Clinton had not served in the Vietnam War, and the media had been trying to nail down whether he had dodged the draft. Clinton publicly denied that he’d ever received any favorable treatment or used his connections to avoid military service. He said he’d just been lucky. But Jackson knew the story was more complicated. Back in 1969, just before Jackson left Oxford, the two men had spoken about the Vietnam War. Clinton had told Jackson that he’d received an induction notice and was looking for a way to avoid going on active duty. Back in Arkansas, Jackson tried to pull some strings on his friend’s behalf. Twenty-three years later, he decided to tell the world about it.
CLIFF JACKSON: It was sort of a crisis night. I couldn’t sleep all night long—didn’t get a wink of sleep, stayed up—because I knew that if I told that story, I was crossing the Rubicon. I was burning all bridges with Bill Clinton.
Jackson ended up sharing everything he knew about Clinton’s draft history with a reporter from the L.A. Times. When the article appeared in April of 1992, it landed Jackson on Larry King Live and Crossfire, and it put Clinton’s campaign on the defensive.
REPORTER: … answering new questions about Clinton’s past. A revelation that he’d received a draft induction notice in 1969, a fact made public by a former classmate, Cliff Jackson.
CLIFF JACKSON: I want him to admit that he has not told the truth to the American people.
The draft controversy didn’t stop Clinton from winning the election. But his old frenemy from Oxford was not done trying to bring him down. Jackson’s next attack on the now-president wasn’t about fiscal policy or the duty to serve one’s country. It was about sex.
In pursuing this new angle, Jackson understood that it wasn’t enough for the information that he fed to the press to be true. It also had to feel true—it had to be something that people were willing to believe. That challenge led Jackson to grapple with a bunch of big questions.
What gives an accusation legitimacy? What makes a story sound plausible, and convincing? And what determines, in the end, whether someone is believed or dismissed as a liar?
This is Slow Burn. I’m your host, Leon Neyfakh.
REPORTER 1: Controversies continue to swirl around President Clinton.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The totality of all of these accusations has a corrosive effect on the president.
REPORTER 2: Mrs. Clinton referred to all this as “trash for cash.”
SAM DONALDSON: Do you think all these people care about you, or are they just using you to get Bill Clinton?
REPORTER 3: The president’s lawyers have no comment.
Episode 3: Cred.
* * *
David Brock met Cliff Jackson for the first time at the airport in Little Rock. It was August of 1993. Brock was a young journalist from a small conservative magazine in Washington called the American Spectator. He had flown to Little Rock because Jackson had a hot story for him. Here’s Brock:
DAVID BROCK: I didn’t know how to recognize him. You know, they told me he would have a copy of—the way I remember it—was the Wall Street Journal under his arm, and that’s how I’d recognize him.
Jackson drove Brock in his old Mercedes to a Holiday Inn, where they proceeded to have a highly sensitive, off-the-record conversation.
DAVID BROCK: The entire thing was furtive, and it had the feel of, you know, some kind of intelligence-gathering mission that was very hush-hush.
Brock was best-known as the author of The Real Anita Hill, a book that attacked the motives of the law professor who accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.
The book had turned Brock into a minor celebrity in Washington, with conservatives applauding his pugnacity and liberals calling him a gutter-dwelling smear-artist. In the Washington Post, he was described, with a touch of irony, as “the Bob Woodward of the right.”
Brock had gotten Jackson’s name from a wealthy Republican donor named Peter W. Smith. If Smith’s name rings a bell, it’s probably because you heard about him in 2017, when it was reported that he’d killed himself, after trying to obtain a batch of Hillary Clinton’s emails from Russian hackers.
Brock and Smith had met during the ’92 campaign, when Smith tried to get the young journalist to write about how Clinton had an illegitimate black son.
Brock had passed on that one. But he was intrigued by Smith’s latest tip. State troopers who had served as Clinton’s security detail when he was governor were claiming that he’d used them to facilitate his adulterous lifestyle. And the troopers were willing to go into detail.
Smith gave Brock $5,000 to cover his expenses and put him in touch with Cliff Jackson. Jackson, by this point, was a well-known Clinton antagonist, and he had been recruited by the troopers to serve as a public relations adviser.
CLIFF JACKSON: They thought the American public was entitled to know that they had been used to procure women, and they were offended by the fact that they had been so used.
At Brock’s first meeting with the troopers, they pitched him on the idea of co-writing a book with them and selling it for a lot of money.
DAVID BROCK: They made me aware right away that they might have a commercial interest in telling their story.
But Brock didn’t think a book deal was a good idea. He wanted to portray the troopers as whistleblowers—and a whistleblower who gets paid is not a whistleblower who gets believed.
Brock encouraged the troopers to use him as a messenger rather than a ghostwriter.
DAVID BROCK: It didn't feel like a put-up job at all. It felt like they had a legitimate story they wanted to tell, even though they might want to benefit financially from it, that didn't fatally taint it in my mind at all.
Cliff Jackson, like Brock, was thinking about the troopers’ story strategically. Jackson knew that where a story appeared mattered almost as much as what it said. For this reason, Jackson regarded the unabashedly right-wing American Spectator as his Plan B. Though he was pleased to have a hotshot like David Brock on the case, Jackson wanted a more established, less ideological outlet to break the story first.
CLIFF JACKSON: I mean, I knew he was interested in the lurid details. I knew he was a right-wing hit writer and that his interest was in taking Bill Clinton down. And if he wanted to do it as a follow-up story after the story had already been presented in the mainstream context and in the proper framework, as I envisioned it anyway, then fine.
Jackson’s Plan A was to get the troopers story placed with the L.A. Times, a mainstream outlet where Jackson still knew people from the days of the draft scandal and that would give the troopers’ account legitimacy. Although Jackson made his clients available to both the Times and the American Spectator, he made David Brock promise that he wouldn’t publish anything until after the newspaper took the first bite.
For a while, the plan seemed to be working. A pair of investigative reporters from the Times, Bill Rempel and Doug Frantz, worked on the trooper story throughout the fall and early winter of 1993. And they were getting solid stuff: One of the women the troopers told them about denied having an improper relationship with Clinton. But the troopers discovered that Clinton had called her 59 times between 1989 and 1991, including once in the middle of the night.
But when the reporters turned in their story in December, the executive editor of the L.A. Times seemed hesitant about printing it. First, he waited several days to even read the draft, then he held the reporters back from submitting questions to the White House. Then he told them to make the troopers take a lie detector test.
David Brock, meanwhile, was long since finished with his piece. Unlike the L.A. Times reporters, he had done virtually nothing to independently verify what the troopers had told him.
With the L.A. Times dithering, Brock decided to disregard Cliff Jackson’s embargo. His piece ran as the American Spectator’s cover story and began circulating shortly before Christmas. The 11,000-word article was headlined “His Cheatin’ Heart,” and was illustrated with a caricature of Clinton sneaking out of the governor’s mansion. The story traveled fast.
REPORTER 1: The president’s personal life in Arkansas is getting renewed attention.
REPORTER 2: In a story in the conservative magazine American Spectator, two troopers claimed that the troopers themselves would help arrange, then stand guard over sexual liaisons involving Mr. Clinton.
TROOPER: The things that we saw at the governor’s mansion would shock most of the people in this country.
Brock’s story presented a mountain of sensational, if unsubstantiated, allegations: that Clinton would visit his various girlfriends early in the morning, while he was supposed to be out jogging; that he once received oral sex in a car parked outside of his daughter’s elementary school; that Hillary Clinton had had an affair with Vince Foster, her colleague from the Rose Law Firm who killed himself after taking a job in the White House.
The piece also contained some details that were not scandalous but were nonetheless unforgettable. One of the troopers was quoted as saying that “When [Clinton] would eat an apple, he would eat the whole thing, core, stem, and seeds,” and when he picked “up a baked potato with his hands,” he would “eat it in two bites.” The trooper said he had never seen anything like it.
The L.A. Times published its version of the trooper story a few days after Brock’s started making the rounds. Reporters from other newspapers descended on Little Rock in search of more information. Rush Limbaugh read excerpts from Brock’s piece on the radio. CNN aired an interview with the troopers. The White House had no choice but to address the accusations.
REPORTER: In a White House statement, the president’s senior aide, Bruce Lindsay, called the charges ridiculous and said they don’t dignify a response.
The scandal, which erupted at almost the exact same time as the controversy over Vince Foster’s Whitewater files, quickly became known as Troopergate.
REPORTER: Those charges are unsubstantiated, but they have enraged Mrs. Clinton, who today lashed out at the accusers.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Hillary Clinton denounced the matter as a cash-in by politically motivated liars. Hillary singled out Cliff Jackson in particular, dismissing him as a man who was “obsessed” with her husband.
Jackson remembers the period as a heady time.
CLIFF JACKSON: I mean, my phone would not cease ringing. People showed up at my office door. I mean there were five or six tabloids from here and England. There were networks from Europe. I mean, everybody is wanting an interview. Everybody is wanting to talk to me. Everybody is wanting to talk to the troopers. Everybody’s wanting an exclusive on some angle of it. It was absolute madness.
For all that attention, Jackson says he was dismayed by how Troopergate played out. He was furious that David Brock had preempted the LA Times, and he was embarrassed that the lurid version of the story had come out first.
CLIFF JACKSON: Oh man I thought I’d failed. I mean, I had a media strategy that relied on the story being presented in a responsible manner, and I’d failed.
It makes sense that Jackson was disappointed—because, after that initial burst of excitement, Troopergate kind of fizzled. One problem was that it was indeed tainted by its association with the American Spectator. Another was that the New York Times discovered that the two troopers who had gone on the record with Brock had once committed insurance fraud. The matter was unrelated to the troopers’ claims about Clinton, but it was a reason not to take them at their word.
Regardless, the issue of the American Spectator containing Brock's article sold nearly 300,000 copies—approximately double the magazine’s normal circulation. Among the people who read it was a woman from Arkansas named Paula Jones.
* * *
In late 1993, Paula Jones was starting a new life in Long Beach, California, with her husband and their new baby. Jones was from a tiny town outside Little Rock. She was 27 years old—the daughter of an evangelical preacher. Before moving to California, she had worked a minimum wage job for the Arkansas state government.
One day in January, Jones received a phone call from an old friend, who told her about a strange article she had just come across in a magazine.
Jones’s friend read a passage out loud. It was about a woman named Paula who had been approached by a member of Bill Clinton’s security staff at an event and was asked to join the governor alone in a hotel room.
According to the article, which did not give Paula’s last name, the woman had disappeared into Clinton’s room for an hour. Afterwards, she reportedly told one of Clinton’s bodyguards that if the governor wanted a steady girlfriend, she was up for it.
Paula Jones, who did not respond to my requests for an interview, had no doubt that the passage was supposed to be about her. Both she and her friend remembered the encounter in question very well. It had taken place in May of 1991 at the Excelsior Hotel in Little Rock. Above all, they remembered how distraught and embarrassed Jones had been afterwards. Jones was surprised and upset to hear that the article had portrayed her encounter with Clinton as something she had taken part in eagerly.
STUART TAYLOR: And that was what mortified her because everyone in Little Rock was going to know who Paula was and was going to think that she was a tramp.
That’s journalist Stuart Taylor. He wrote about Paula Jones for the magazine American Lawyer.
STUART TAYLOR: And she thought her reputation was going to be horribly damaged, and she needed to do something about it.
Not knowing what else to do, Jones called a lawyer in Arkansas and asked him for help. Pretty soon, the lawyer was on the phone with Cliff Jackson.
The call gave rise to a fateful collaboration. After hearing Jones’s version of the Excelsior Hotel story, Jackson told her and her lawyer about a press conference he was putting together to raise money for two of the state troopers. It was scheduled to take place at CPAC, the annual gathering for conservatives in Washington, D.C. Jackson suggested that Jones could piggyback on the event and use it to set the record straight about her experience with Bill Clinton.
CLIFF JACKSON: And her version was slightly different than in the American Spectator. And if that were true, then it was concerning.
LEON: And what made you believe her?
CLIFF JACKSON: I didn't automatically believe her. I didn't automatically disbelieve her. I tried to maintain an open mind about it. I'm aware that people not only slant the truth, but they have a perception of the truth that may vary from the actual truth. So I thought she deserved to be heard.
And so, in February of 1994, Paula Jones flew to Washington to go public with her allegations against the president.
As reporters took their seats at CPAC, Paula Jones stood on stage, flanked by her lawyer and her angry-looking husband Steve. But when the event started, Jones and her entourage all sat down, and it was Cliff Jackson who did most of the talking.
CLIFF JACKSON: My name is Cliff Jackson, and I appreciate all of you folks slipping and sliding over to this press conference today.
Jackson talked mostly about the so-called whistleblower fund that he was launching to benefit the troopers. Then, after 20 minutes, Jones’s lawyer took the microphone and essentially told the assembled reporters that the press conference was about to be a massive waste of time. He announced that Paula Jones would not be going into any specifics about what had happened between her and Clinton in the hotel room.
DANIEL TRAYLOR: Out of deference to the first family, the presidency, I do not want to appeal to the prurient interest in us all. But I’ve instructed Ms. Jones not to get into any great detail as y’all address questions to her as to what transpired.
As she made her way to the microphone, Jones looked like she wasn’t sure she wanted to be there. When she finally spoke, her voice came across as meek and unpracticed.
PAULA JONES: A woman can’t work in the workplace and be harassed by a figure that high, and um … it’s just humiliating what he did to me.
Following the instructions she’d received from her lawyer, Jones spoke only in general terms, and steadfastly refused to give reporters what they wanted.
REPORTER: Could you tell us, in your own words, something about what really happened in that room? Because everybody’s been vague.
PAULA JONES: I … I will not speak on that …
In the end, Jones went as far as to say that Clinton had asked her for a “type of sex.” The press conference did not make much of an impression.
CLIFF JACKSON: It was a giant dud. Maybe just a passing reference in some papers, but nobody went with a major story on it.
But one mainstream reporter was paying attention: the Washington Post’s Michael Isikoff.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Paula Jones is essentially accusing the governor of sexual harassment. I thought that was an allegation that deserved to be at least explored, and I wanted to talk to her alone and hear the full story.
The next morning, Isikoff met Jones in a suite at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in D.C. There, he conducted a three-hour interview, in which Jones told him her version of what happened on May 8, 1991.
She explained that she’d been working at a conference in a Little Rock hotel when she’d caught a glimpse of Clinton.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: She was sitting there with her friend, and she notices the governor noticing her, and then the state trooper coming over to her and bringing her up, saying the governor says you make his knees knock, and he wants to see you upstairs.
Jones told Isikoff that she was confused about what the governor wanted with her, but she agreed to go along because she thought maybe Clinton would offer her a job. When she was alone with Clinton in the room, they first made small talk—she asked him if he was planning to run for president, and he said he hadn’t decided.
Then, within minutes, Jones told Isikoff, the governor took her hand and pulled her close to him. She darted away and tried to make conversation, but Clinton walked over to her and put his hand on her leg and his face against her neck.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: She said something to the effect, “I’m not that kind of girl,” and asked where his wife was and felt uncomfortable, and then finally culminating with, as she told it, Bill Clinton dropping his pants, exposing himself, and asking her to kiss it.
LEON: How did she say she responded?
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: She said she didn’t want to do that, didn’t do that sort of thing, and then she said—and I thought this was quite interesting, as she recounted the story—that Clinton said something to the effect of, “Well, I don’t want to make you do something you don’t want to do.”
Jones told Isikoff that she thought about Clinton’s comment after she dashed out of the hotel room.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: She realized that that was, you know, potentially exculpatory for Clinton, and she said, “That little thing is probably going to get him off, right?” And to me, that jumped out, because if this was a story that was invented by Bill Clinton’s political enemies to do him damage, it would not have included that line.
As his reporting progressed, Isikoff grew confident that Jones was telling the truth. The most powerful evidence came from two of Jones’s friends, who said she had told them about the incident the day it happened.
Cliff Jackson was thrilled that Michael Isikoff was on the story. He was a dogged reporter—and he worked for the liberal Washington Post. If the Post ran something on Paula Jones, it would give her credibility a serious boost.
But the mainstream media let Jackson down yet again: Just as the L.A. Times had dragged its feet on Troopergate, so did the Washington Post drag its feet on Paula Jones.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: This became a subject of endless wrangling within the paper and a lot of back and forth, a lot of resistance from some editors who were just dead set against the story, who still viewed it as tawdry, who still viewed it as something that was being pushed by political enemies, that there was no real corroboration for what she had to say.
It was not the first time in his career that Isikoff became frustrated with editors for being overly cautious—and it wouldn’t be the last.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: You know, it kind of got stuck, and the editors were involved kept pushing me back for more—to go back to Little Rock, to find more people. At some point, the brief became, “Well if he really did this with Paula Jones, he must have done it with a lot of other women … ” And, you know, there was some tension within the newsroom about what we do about it.
As weeks turned to months, Jones started getting impatient with Isikoff and the Post, and she decided to take her story elsewhere. In April of 1994, she agreed to give an interview to a fringe filmmaker associated with and funded by the religious right.
THE CLINTON CHRONICLES VOICEOVER: On May 8, 1991, Paula Jones was working the registration desk for the governor’s quality management conference at the Excelsior Hotel.
PAULA JONES: I was approached by one of Bill Clinton’s bodyguards …
Jones allegedly accepted $1,000 for doing the interview—a payment that led even her own lawyer to become disillusioned with her. Worse, the footage was used in a quasi-documentary film called the Clinton Chronicles, which circulated on VHS and portrayed the Clintons as murderers and drug dealers.
THE CLINTON CHRONICLES VOICEOVER: Most Americans were not aware of the extent of Clinton’s criminal background.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Saturday morning, we found Gary Johnson beaten and left for dead. He had been beaten by Clinton’s people.
Jones’s association with the Clinton Chronicles made it easy to dismiss her, even after the Washington Post finally published Isikoff’s deeply reported story on her case. Here, again, is journalist Stuart Taylor, who wrote about why Jones had such a hard time getting people to believe her:
STUART TAYLOR: The more she looked like she was in the arms of Clinton’s political enemies, the less credence she got from the media generally, somewhat understandably. And so people ascribed the worst possible motives to her.
In the New York Times, Frank Rich asked whether David Brock’s Troopergate story had doomed Jones from the start. “Is it possible,” he wrote, “that the same right-wing journalist who tried to destroy the credibility of Anita Hill has destroyed the credibility of Paula Jones?”
In an interview with Sam Donaldson, Jones addressed the company she had been keeping.
SAM DONALDSON: Did it occur to you that people would suspect your motives?
PAULA JONES: Those are the only people that are coming to my defense. There’s not any Democrats that are wanting to support me. I was just wanting to tell my story, and I’m thankful that the conservatives let me use their podium to tell it on.
SAM DONALDSON: But do you think these people care about you, or are they just using you to get Bill Clinton?
JONES: I don’t know, but I’m not in with them.
DONALDSON: But you are in with them. You appeared with them.
JONES: But I was just there. I didn’t—I wasn’t a conservative. I didn’t even know what a conservative was.
As Jones struggled to navigate her new life as a public figure, she also faced a different kind of pressure. With the three-year statute of limitations on the hotel room incident fast approaching, she and her legal team had to decide whether to take Clinton to court. On May 6, 1994, they made their move.
GIL DAVIS: The complaint filed with the United States district court here today in Little Rock charges Mr. Clinton and trooper Ferguson …
In addition to Clinton, Jones also sued the state trooper, Danny Ferguson, who had allegedly led Jones to the hotel room and had presumably passed on the anecdote to David Brock.
JOE CAMMARATA: This is the statement of Paula Corbin Jones: “It is with regret, and only after much prayer and consultation with my family and friends, that I have today commenced a federal lawsuit against Bill Clinton and Danny Ferguson.”
REPORTER: The White House is poised to fight sexual harassment charges against President Clinton.
REPORTER: Paula Corbin Jones is seeking $700,000 …
Clinton’s allies, including his personal lawyer, rushed to defend the president—and to attack Paula Jones’s credibility.
REPORTER: The White House has launched a counter offensive.
ROBERT BENNETT: This complaint is tabloid trash with a legal caption on it.
Clinton’s surrogates in the press pointed to the team of activist handlers who had attached themselves to Jones since her appearance at CPAC.
COMMENTATOR: I don’t know what Ms. Jones’ motives are but she obviously has hooked up with every ring-wing extremist in this country.
Clinton’s former campaign manager, James Carville, made the argument that Jones was motivated by money—that if you drag a $100 bill through a trailer park you never know what you’ll find. The comment reflected a few different strains of anti-Jones rhetoric, portraying her as a classless money-grubber being manipulated by opportunists. Here again is Stuart Taylor:
STUART TAYLOR: She didn’t look like someone you’d find at a Washington cocktail party. She looked like the kind of woman that fancy Washington/New York types looked down on. She had big, big hair; lots of makeup; and dressed in a way that was not, you know, kind of respectable in sophisticated circles. And so the image settled on her being, you know, kind of low-class.
In August of 1994, New York Magazine ran a cover story about how the ’90s were the decade of white trash. The story positioned Jones as a prime example of the phenomenon and cited her brother-in-law in characterizing her as a “hard-partying gold digger who pinched men’s butts at the local Red Lobster.” Later, one of Jones’s ex-boyfriends sold naked pictures of her to Penthouse. Andy Rooney from 60 Minutes wrote a newspaper column about going to the library and looking at those photos. Rooney wrote that he was skeptical that any jury would ever “believe that Bill Clinton was sexually attracted to” Jones.
* * *
These personal attacks on Jones in the media did not stop her sexual harassment case from working its way through the courts. The main obstacle in that arena was Clinton’s legal team, which took the position that the president should not have to deal with any civil lawsuits until after he left office.
The president’s request for immunity would end up reaching the Supreme Court in 1997. In the meantime, as Paula Jones herself twisted in the wind, Cliff Jackson and David Brock both found ways to move on. After orchestrating the scandal that had nudged Jones into the spotlight, the two men both came to regret their roles in helping her get there. Here’s Brock talking about his American Spectator story:
DAVID BROCK: There were a number of things from the time I published the story till the time I disowned it that had happened that led me to the conclusion that it shouldn't have been published.
Brock wasn’t so concerned about the fact that he’d characterized Paula Jones as an enthusiastic participant in her rendezvous with Clinton. In fact, Brock once told Mike Isikoff that Jones’s account of the hotel room encounter “corroborated the essence” of his story, because it showed that the troopers really did wrangle women for Clinton. If Paula Jones was not a willing participant, Brock told Isikoff, that was a “fairly minor point.”
So what did cause Brock’s disillusionment? He says it was learning that his tipster, the Republican fundraiser Peter W. Smith, had secretly payed the troopers after the story was published. This was, apparently, an ethical violation that Brock was unwilling to tolerate, and it began a process of alienation that drove him away from his friends in the conservative movement. In September of 1997, Brock wrote an essay for Esquire called “Confessions of a Right-Wing Hit Man” in which he declared that his days as a conservative were over.
Brock also made himself available to the Clintons as a source on the right-wing conspiracy he had been part of.
DAVID BROCK: I publicly recanted the Troopergate story, but then I also privately shared with the Clinton White House what I knew about the background of all this. And so I was trying to, you know, kind of mitigate the damage I had done by helping where I could.
Soon after his career in right-wing media ended, Brock’s second act as a liberal media figure began. He started Media Matters, a progressive watchdog group. He’s now a prominent Democratic fundraiser and adviser.
Cliff Jackson’s evolution was more complicated. Insofar as he had a moment of clarity, he says it came after the 1994 midterm elections, when the Republican Party won control of both the House and the Senate. Jackson felt that this blow to the Clinton presidency was partly his doing.
CLIFF JACKSON: I was starting to have second thoughts about my role in opposing Bill Clinton. As a result of the draft story and the Troopergate story, I had been denominated by the national press and made media as Bill Clinton’s arch enemy and nemesis. And I didn’t like playing that role, and I didn’t like the consequences of some of the actions that I had taken.
Jackson talks openly about how much he came to regret his role in signal-boosting all those Clinton scandals. He says he worries about the role he played in the rise of partisan warfare.
JACKSON: I also saw the impact that, in part, my actions had had on the Clinton presidency up to that point, and I didn’t like it because I thought he deserved the chance. I thought he had the potential to be one of our greatest presidents, and I felt that I had played a role in preventing him from doing that, so I decided that I would go back to a neutral position.
So, within just a few years of helping to break the Troopergate and Paula Jones stories, Cliff Jackson had stopped trying to hurt the Clintons, and David Brock was actively trying to help them. But by then, they had already set in motion a series of events that neither of them could control.
As part of her lawsuit against the president, Paula Jones’ lawyers had gone looking for other women who had worked for Bill Clinton and been subjected to inappropriate sexual advances from him.
REPORTER: Jones’s attorneys intend to ask President Clinton about possible relations with other women in an attempt to prove a pattern of conduct.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: To go into Clinton’s sexual background and establish a pattern of harassment, that is the very foundation of sexual harassment cases—you have to do that.
If they could demonstrate a pattern of inappropriate behavior, the Jones legal team thought, the courts, the press, and the public might be more willing to believe their client.
One of the women on their list, referred to in their paperwork as Jane Doe No. 6, was a former White House intern named Monica Lewinsky.
* * *
Next week on Slow Burn, you’ll hear about the bizarre circumstances under which Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky first met. You’ll also hear about how their relationship developed into an obsession for Lewinsky and a compulsion for Clinton.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: He really is risking so much. I mean, it’s so dangerous.
LEON: And he’s being sued for sexual harassment at this moment by a woman who works for him.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: [Laughs] Oh, it’s not funny. It’s really not funny.
Slow Burn is a production of Slate Plus, Slate's membership program. You can sign up for Slate Plus to hear a bonus episode of the show this week and every week until the end of the season. In this week’s bonus episode, you’ll hear an interview with Walter Dellinger, the former Justice Department lawyer who argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of the Clinton White House in Clinton v. Jones. It’s a fantastic interview, packed with ideas about the law, as well as amazing stories from Walter, including one about a midnight phone he took from Clinton the night before oral arguments.
WALTER DELLINGER: And he said, memorable, “Walter, how you feeling about the argument?” … And I said, “Mr. President, first of all, you need to understand, I am not your lawyer, and you’re not my client. My client is the United States of America.”
You don’t want to miss it.
This episode of Slow Burn was produced by me and Andrew Parsons, with editorial direction by Josh Levin and Gabriel Roth. Our researcher is Madeline Kaplan. Our theme song is by Spatial Relations. Our artwork is by Teddy Blanks at Chips NY. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of Slate Podcasts, and T.J. Raphael is the senior producer for the Slate Podcast Network.
Thanks to the NBC News archives, ABC News, CBS News, C-SPAN, KATV in Little Rock, and the Pryor Center at the University of Arkansas for the archival audio you heard in this episode. You can find a full list of books, articles, and documentaries used to research this episode on our show page.
For script notes and all kinds of other help, we want to thank Ava Lubell, Heather Schwedel, Allison Benedikt, Mark Feeney, Faith Smith, Jeff Friedrich, Jayson De Leon, Mary Wilson, and Camilla Hammer.
See you next week.
*Update, Aug. 23, 2018: A transcript of the show has been added since this page was first published.