Jones’s claims against President Clinton are far stronger than the media has let on– and far stronger than Anita Hill’s against Clarence Thomas
When William Jefferson Clinton v. Paula Corbin Jones comes before the U.S. Supreme Court – as expected – in January, all eyes will be on Justice Clarence Thomas. Will a flicker of emotion crease his usually impassive glare as he ponders a she-said, he-said fact pattern so hauntingly reminiscent of his own ordeal five years ago? Will he think of how – in the words that spill like a raging torrent from Thomas’s close friend (and sometime self-appointed spokesman) Armstrong Williams – “Mrs. Clinton went out to San Francisco to present Anita Hill with the woman of the year award”? Williams adds: “I wonder when she’s going to present an award to Paula Jones? And where is NOW [the National Organization for Women]? People need to see the hypocrisy here.”
It was actually an American Bar Association commission on women that presented an award to Hill. But Williams has a point. Hillary Clinton spoke at the August 1992 award luncheon, celebrating Hill for having “transformed consciousness and changed history with her courageous testimony” against Thomas. Both women were hailed as heroines at that ABA convention, by a host of women lawyers and others who have shunned Jones as a pariah.
Generally overlooked, meanwhile, has been the fact that the evidence supporting Paula Jones’s allegations of predatory, if nor depraved, behavior by Bill Clinton is far stronger than the evidence supporting Anita Hill’s allegations of far less serious conduct by Clarence Thomas.
Jones’s evidence includes clear proof, scattered through the public record, that then-governor Clinton’s state trooper-bodyguard interrupted the then-24-year-old state employee on the job on May 8, 1991, and took her to meet Clinton – the boss of Jones’s boss – alone in an upstairs suite at Little Rock’s Excelsior Hotel, for the apparent purpose of sexual dalliance. The evidence also includes strongly corroborative statements made to me by two of Jones’s friends, complete with tellingly detailed, seamy specifics – some never published until now – that are remarkably consistent with Jones’s allegations about what happened inside that suite. The friends relate how an extremely upset Jones had told one of them within ten minutes of the event, and the other within 90 minutes, that Clinton had suddenly exposed himself and demanded oral sex after Jones had rebuffed his efforts to grope her. One of these women, Pamela Blackard, also witnessed the trooper’s approach to Jones and her departure to and return from Clinton’s hotel room. Both told me that, on the basis of Jones’s detailed descriptions and distraught demeanor that day, they are convinced that she was, and is, telling the truth. They both signed sworn, generally worded affidavits for Jones in 1994.
Blackard and the other woman, Debra Ballentine, first told their stories in February 1994 in exclusive interviews to reporter Michael Isikoff, then of The Washington Post. But to Isikoff’s chagrin, the Post printed only sketchy fragments of their accounts, 11 weeks later. Blackard’s and Ballentine’s detailed, previously unpublished stories provide far stronger corroboration for Jones’s allegations than anyone could know from reports by the Post or any other major news organization.
There is, of course, other evidence that warrants skepticism about Jones’s account, including the claim by Jones’s trooper escort that she happily volunteered to be Clinton’s “girlfriend” just after leaving his hotel room. Yet while the ultimate truth remains elusive, this article will show that there are only three logically possible scenarios: that Jones lied in a most convincing manner, and in stunning, Technicolor detail, to both Blackard and Ballentine, on May 8, 1991, and to her sisters soon thereafter; that Blackard, Ballentine, and both sisters later conspired with Jones to concoct a monstrous lie about the president; or that Jones’s allegations are substantially true.
“My guess is that she’s lying, at least about the more lurid details,” I wrote of Jones in the July/August 1994 issue of The American Lawyer. But after interviewing Blackard and Ballentine and studying other evidence detailed below, I’m not so sure of that. And I’m all but convinced that whatever Clinton did was worse than anything Thomas was even accused of doing.
I say this as one who voted for President Clinton in 1992 and who may do so again (with multiple misgivings), and as one who lamented Justice Thomas’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, and who disagrees deeply with much of his archconservative jurisprudence. I don’t want to believe that the president is a reckless sexual harasser, and I’ll never know for sure exactly what happened when Clinton was alone with Jones.
But Jones’s evidence is highly persuasive.
So, too, is the absence of evidence where one might expect to find it. President Clinton has carefully avoided making any statement whatever – sworn or unsworn – about what, if anything, happened between him and Paula Jones. He has never personally, publicly denied that (for example) he had Jones delivered to his hotel room by his trooper-bodyguard. Moreover, the president’s personal lawyer, Robert Bennett, has never denied with specificity this or many other particulars of Jones’s factual allegations, either in court or in his countless media appearances. Bennett has said that the president “did not engage in any inappropriate or sexual conduct with this woman,” and that he “has no recollection of ever meeting this woman.” But he has never denied that a meeting took place. Rather, he has uttered many ambiguous nondenial denials, like “nothing happened in that hotel.”
Since the Jones lawsuit was filed, the president and his lawyers have also exploited every delaying tactic at their command, including the pending Supreme Court appeal, to avoid confronting the evidence. Their sweeping and unprecedented claim that the Constitution bars all proceedings in all “personal damages litigation against an incumbent president” was rejected by the federal district and appellate courts – the latter in a decision stressing that “the Constitution . . . did not create a monarchy.”
But they have won by losing. While taking their claim of immunity to the Supreme Court, the president and his lawyers have won interim orders blocking Jones from taking discovery from anyone: not from Clinton, not from the trooper who has said he escorted Jones to Clinton’s room at Clinton’s direction, not from anyone else. They have also deferred even the filing of an answer by Clinton admitting or denying each of the specific factual allegations of the complaint. Even if – as seems likely – the Supreme Court rejects the president’s arguments for stopping all proceedings cold until he leaves office, Clinton and Bennett have already achieved their main goal: The very pendency of Clinton’s appeal has stalled – until well after the last election he will ever face – all inquiry into whether he behaved with extraordinary depravity.
The Clinton-Bennett defense strategy has been a success in the media as well as the courts. The president’s surrogates and supporters have diverted attention from the most relevant evidence by orchestrating a media blitz depicting Jones as a promiscuous, flirtatious, gold-digging, fame-seeking slut, unworthy of belief. They have characterized her allegations as “tabloid trash,” in Bennett’s famous phrase, that are being cynically used by Clinton-haters to promote a right-wing agenda. While supporters of Clarence Thomas famously used similar tactics to demonize Hill, they had a far less receptive media audience.
All mainstream news reports and commentaries about Jones (that I’ve seen) have ignored or downplayed the strength of her corroborating witnesses and other evidence. Many have radiated suspicion of her motives (but not of Anita Hill’s); of her nearly three-year delay in making her allegations public (but not of Hill’s ten-year delay, or of Hill’s decision to follow Thomas to a new job after the alleged harassment had started); and of the uncritical joy with which her claims were predictably greeted by Clinton-haters and right-wingers (as Hill’s were by Thomas-haters and left-wingers). Many rest on two shaky premises, the first illogical and the second unproven: that Jones’s motives must be pure for her allegations to be true, and that her motives are in fact impure.
Meanwhile, not a single one of the feminist groups that clamored first for a Senate hearing for Anita Hill, and then for Clarence Thomas’s head, has lifted a finger on behalf of Paula Jones. There is some symmetry here: Many conservatives who reflexively trashed Hill, an apparently demure, dignified law professor, have given the benefit of the doubt to Jones, who projects neither demureness nor dignity. What the Hill-Thomas and Jones-Clinton episodes have in common is that each of them prompted a rush to judgment by people on both sides of the ideological divide whose conclusions were derived not from evidence, but from ideological bias. And most striking, in my view, is the hypocrisy (or ignorance) and class bias of feminists and liberals – who proclaimed during the Hill-Thomas uproar that “women don’t make these things up,” and that “you just don’t get it” if you presumed Thomas innocent until proven guilty – only to spurn Jones’s allegations of far more serious (indeed, criminal) conduct as unworthy of belief and legally frivolous.
So maybe it’s time – or past time – for an in-depth analysis of the evidence for and against Jones’s claims, and how it stacks up against the evidence for and against Anita Hill’s. Of course, we don’t have all the evidence. But we have a lot of it. And because it is the president himself who has assiduously kept the rest of it from us, it’s hardly unfair to him to do a tentative analysis, based on what we know now, of what (if anything) happened between him and Jones on May 8, 1991. Such an analysis follows, interwoven with a chronological account of the tortured process by which Jones’s story emerged in early 1994, amid disbelief and derision, and the subsequent course of the lawsuit.
The account will begin with events shedding light on her motives and then focus on more directly relevant evidence. Starting with the magazine article that spurred Jones in early 1994 to break her silence about Clinton’s alleged harassment of her – because it implied that she had been one of Clinton’s lovers – it will relate the bungled efforts by Jones’s first lawyer to get some kind of redress from the president; the fiasco-cum-press conference at which Jones went public at a Clinton-bashing rightwing conclave; her retention of two litigators who call themselves “country lawyers,” Gilbert Davis and Joseph Cammarata, of Fairfax, Virginia; the eleventh-hour bid by Bob Bennett to head off her $700,000 sexual harassment lawsuit through long-distance telephone negotiations, with the president apparently sitting in; the allegations of the May 6, 1994 complaint, and the detailed evidence supporting and countering them; and Bennett’s multimedia lawyering since the complaint was filed, from his repeated appearances on Larry King Live to his orchestration of the president’s Supreme Court appeal.
Such lawyering does not come cheap. The accrued fees and costs of Bennett – who has spent more of his own time defending Clinton on television than in courtrooms – and his mega-firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, have probably mounted above $2 million already, triple the $700,000 in damages sought by the Paula Jones complaint. That would bring the total accrued fees and costs of Clinton’s four private law firms to about $5 million [see “Fees: $5 Million And Counting,” page 61]. But to the miraculous good fortune of the president and his lawyers, two big insurance companies have come to the rescue, generously assuming responsibility for Skadden’s fees.
You should be so lucky, if anyone ever sues you for sexual harassment.
A WOMAN NAMED “PAULA”
Paula Corbin Jones’s life changed dramatically in early 1994, in a chain of events that began when she was mentioned as one of Bill Clinton’s apparently compliant conquests, in an article by conservative journalist David Brock. In a story that detailed allegations by four of Clinton’s former state trooper-bodyguards. Brock reported that as governor of Arkansas, Clinton had used the troopers both to procure women who caught his eye – including one named “Paula,” who was delivered to Clinton in a room at the Excelsior Hotel – and to facilitate and conceal long-term extramarital affairs with Gennifer Flowers and others.
This was the same David Brock who had written the best-selling 1993 book The Real Anita Hill. In a one-sided but semicogent dissection of old and new evidence about Hill and her charges against Clarence Thomas, Brock had savaged the demure professor as a liar. Among other things, Brock had stressed Hill’s apparent (but carefully camouflaged) liberal ideological animus against Thomas and her ten-year delay in going public. For this, Brock himself was widely savaged by liberals (like New York Times columnist Frank Rich) as a right-wing smear artist.
“His Cheatin’ Heart,” which appeared in the January 1994 issue of the Clinton-bashing The American Spectator, began circulating in Washington about December 17, 1993, and in Little Rock soon afterward. It was followed by a long, December 21 investigative piece in the Los Angeles Times, reporting the same four troopers’ allegations about Clinton’s sex life, while stressing a series of efforts made in 1993 by the Clinton camp to dissuade the troopers from speaking out – including phone calls from the president himself to trooper Danny Lee Ferguson. Ferguson – the one who has said Clinton had him deliver Paula Jones to his hotel room – claimed that the president dangled possible federal jobs for him and another trooper [see “A Trooper’s Tales,” page 63].
According to her complaint, Jones had heard nothing about the Brock article, or its hint of a quick Clinton tryst with “Paula” at the Excelsior Hotel. Having sworn her friends and sisters to silence after the Excelsior encounter in 1991, Jones had been urged to reconsider during the 1992 campaign publicity about Clinton’s extramarital adventures with Gennifer Flowers and others. “I called [Paula] and told her she ought to do something,” recalls Jones’s friend Debra Ballentine. But Jones did nothing, because, she has said, she feared nobody would believe her, and because she was still working under a Clinton appointee. Meanwhile, she got on with her life. She and her husband Stephen had a baby in 1992, and moved to Long Beach, California, in mid-1993. In January 1994 she had returned to Arkansas to visit her friends and family. That’s when Debra Ballentine read the key paragraph to Jones over the phone while scheduling a lunch:
One of the troopers told the story of how Clinton had eyed a woman at a reception in the Excelsior Hotel in downtown Little Rock. … Clinton asked him to approach the woman, whom the trooper remembered only as Paula, tell her how attractive the governor thought she was, and take her to a room in the hotel where Clinton would be waiting. As the troopers explained it, the standard procedure in a case like this was for one of them to inform the hotel that the governor needed a room for a short time because he was expecting an important call from the White House. … [After her encounter with Clinton, which lasted no more than an hour as the trooper stood by in the hall, the trooper said Paula told him she was available to be Clinton’s regular girlfriend if he so desired.
Jones was mortified, according to her complaint. She recognized herself instantly as the “Paula” whom the trooper had delivered to the hotel room. So did Debra Ballentine. And so would Pamela Blackard, who had been with Jones at the Excelsior that day, and Jones’s two sisters, and her husband. Jones had told all of them that she had rebuffed sexual advances by Clinton that day. What would they believe now? Little Rock is an incubator of gossip, especially about sex. Pretty soon people all over town would hear about how “Paula” had apparently been one of Clinton’s conquests, and which Paula it had been.
“When people say something like that, it pisses you off,” says Jones’s friend Pamela Blackard. “You get mad.” Mad at the magazine. Mad at trooper Ferguson, the Clinton bodyguard who had taken Jones to Clinton’s hotel room that day, and who was obviously Brock’s source. And mad at Bill Clinton – who, as Jones saw it, was responsible for the whole ugly business.
As it happens, Jones ran into Ferguson on January 8, 1994, a day or two after learning of the Brock article, at the Golden Corral Steakhouse in North Little Rock. He was having lunch with his wife while Jones lunched with Ballentine. According to her complaint, Jones confronted Ferguson about the article, and he became apologetic, saying that ” ‘Clinton told me you wouldn’t do anything anyway, Paula,’ ” and observing that ” ‘if you decide to go public with this, the [National] Enquirer will pay you a million dollars.’ “
“He apologized over and over again,” recalls Ballentine, who witnessed the conversation. “He was acting like he didn’t like Clinton at all. … He talked to us for a long time.” She adds: “It was just crystal clear to me, if I had had any doubt [she had told me the truth].”
Ferguson, on the other hand, denied this and claimed in his June 1994 answer to Jones’s lawsuit that Jones had “inquired as to how much money [he] thought that she could make for herself by coming forward with her allegations.”
A CHARGE OF EXTORTION
Five days later Ballentine put Jones in touch with her close friend Daniel Traylor, a small-time solo practitioner in Little Rock who does real estate law and other work. Jones wanted him to try to get some sort of redress from Clinton.
What sort of redress? Jones claims that her only purpose was to get the president to make some kind of public statement clearing her name, and that she has never been in it for money or fame. But Clinton surrogates have fanned suspicions about her motives by filling the airwaves with comments like this one by Clinton counsel Bob Bennett on CNN this January: “Look, this is a lawsuit where the initial fee agreement with her lawyer, Mr. Traylor, says he gets a cut of the action of any movies, any book contracts. This is an action which was announced after an extortion threat was turned down. Do the Republicans really want to ride this horse?”
Bennett’s mention of an extortion threat apparently refers to an effort Traylor made in January 1994 to send a message to Clinton through George Cook, a politically active Little Rock businessman whom Traylor believed to be close to Clinton. Exactly what was said between them is in dispute. Paula Jones was not present.
Cook, who has said he refused at the time even to convey Traylor’s message to the White House, later signed an affidavit about his meeting with Traylor, apparently prepared by a Clinton lawyer in Little Rock: “Traylor . … said [Jones] had a claim against President Clinton and, if she did not get money for it, she would embarrass him publicly. … He said he knew his case was weak, but he needed the client and he needed the money. … Traylor said it would help if President Clinton would get Paula a job out in California. I told Traylor that would be illegal.”
Traylor told The Washington Post in May 1994 that Jones had never suggested that he seek a job or money from the president. He told me that Cook’s affidavit “doesn’t fairly reflect what was proposed or discussed” in their 90-minute meeting, and denied proposing anything improper. But he turned aside my detailed questions. What’s clear is that Traylor was in way, way over his head trying to deal with the president. His mishandling of the Paula Jones matter in early 1994 has a lot to do with her difficulty getting people to look at her allegations and evidence seriously ever since.
Traylor had Jones sign the (now terminated) contingent fee contract on which Bennett has cast aspersions. It gave Traylor one-third of any amounts paid to Jones for any news articles or “television, radio, or movie contracts.” Jones has said she assumed this was standard language.
According to her current lawyers, Jones turned down an offer of $700,000 in mid-May 1994 to tell her story on television. She has pledged to give to charity any damage award that may be left over after paying her lawyers.
Jones’s promise is unenforceable, of course. So, by the way, is the letter in which President and Mrs. Clinton promised to give to charity (or the government) any money that may be left over from their Presidential Legal Expense Trust, after payment of their own attorneys’ fees.
An academic point now, perhaps, since the trust’s liabilities dwarf its assets.
A RIGHT-WING PLOT
After getting nowhere with George Cook, Traylor – a self-described “yellow-dog Democrat” – called Cliff Jackson, a Little Rock lawyer and longtime Clinton critic with contacts in the national press. Jackson had been retained by two of the troopers to help them peddle their stories about their roles in Clinton’s alleged sexcapades. He met with Jones “and was very much persuaded that she was telling the truth,” Jackson says. He suggested that one way to get “national exposure” for Jones’s story would be to piggyback on a press conference that his trooper clients were already planning, at the upcoming Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington.
“I discussed the downside to that,” recalls Jackson, “which was that it would be with me, that I was already demonized as the Bill Clinton nemesis, archenemy – which is a White House creation, I’m not that. … And I knew [CPAC] was a right-wing organization and that that would be viewed by the mainstream press and media, and spun by the White House, as something suspect.”
Despite such warnings, Traylor and his client (oblivious to politics, by all accounts) decided to announce her allegations – and her demand for a presidential apology – at a press conference on February 11, 1994, in conjunction with the CPAC conference. She and her husband appeared on the same stage with Jackson and his trooper clients, who were touting a “Troopergate Whistle-Blowers Fund.” Jones told the reporters that Clinton had tried to kiss her, reached under her clothing, and asked her to perform an unspecified “type of sex.” But Traylor did most of the talking, providing few details and severely limiting reporters’ questioning of Jones. As a result, says Jackson, “she wasn’t allowed to be forthcoming and tell her story.” That only enhanced the suspicions generated by Cliff Jackson’s sponsorship and the choice of a Clinton-bashing, right-wing conference as a forum.
The press conference was a fiasco, and Jones’s vague claims were widely ignored or dismissed as a salacious sideshow. Three days later, six paragraphs deep in a Washington Post Style Section color piece, Lloyd Grove made elegant fun of the whole CPAC affair, ridiculing Jones’s press conference as “yet another ascension of Mount Bimbo” played out in front of a “tittering and chuckling” crowd.
The New York Times published four short, sober, skeptical paragraphs the day after the Jones press conference, deep in the paper, ending with a statement for the president by Mark Gearan, then the White House communications director: “It is not true. He does not recall meeting her. He was never alone in a hotel with her.” Curiously, Gearan – a careful man who must have checked with the president – omitted the word “room.” Jones had not, of course, claimed that she and Clinton had been the only two people in the entire Excelsior Hotel that day. A nondenial denial, perhaps? Meanwhile, Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos dismissed Jones’s press conference as “a cheap political fund-raising trick.”
When the press conference flopped, Jackson says, he convinced Traylor to try persuading a national, establishment newspaper of the strength of Jones’s allegations and evidence, by “giving them an exclusive, working with them only.” Jackson recommended Michael Isikoff, a widely respected investigative reporter, then with The Washington Post and now with its affiliate, Newsweek.
Isikoff immediately interviewed Jones (at length, on tape), her husband, Pamela Blackard, Debra Ballentine, Jones’s two sisters, her mother, and others, including White House officials and Clinton aides in Little Rock, where he did some of his research. In February, he drafted a story stressing the strength of their evidence. But the Post’s editors held it up, amid multiple requests for more reporting, redrafts, and revisions. “The editors involved felt that more work had to be done right up until the day it was finished and put in the paper,” says Robert Kaiser, the Post’s managing editor. “We were extremely careful in light of the nature of the accusation.” Isikoff, on the other hand, later told the American Journalism Review: “Having done the reporting, I felt to not publish the story was withholding information from the readers.”
Frustrated with the Post, Jones and her husband wandered into the welcoming arms of conservative activists and the Christian right, which was beating a path to their door. They agreed to be videotaped by producers for far-right televangelist Jerry Falwell for what turned out to be a scurrilous video called The Clinton Chronicles; Jones also appeared on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club show on the Christian Broadcasting Network and was interviewed by conservative media critic Reed Irvine on his cable television show. Meanwhile, Irvine’s Accuracy in Media took out full-page ads in the Post and other newspapers accusing them of suppressing an important story.
Was Jones (or Traylor, or other people advising her) seeking something more than to clear her good name? They did, after all, create a national scandal to rebut a single paragraph buried deep in a long story in a right-wing journal – a journal that had not even mentioned “Paula’s” last name. Jones and Traylor have said their purpose was to bring pressure on Clinton to make a public apology. But the predictable effect has been to generate a huge wave of publicity far more damaging to Jones’s reputation than one small paragraph in The American Spectator could possibly have been.
“Maybe,” says Jones’s friend Pam Blackard, “she bit off more than she could chew.”
THE $475-AN-HOUR MAN
What really put Paula Jones’s name in the headlines was not her initial press conference, or even the filing of her lawsuit, but rather the decision by President Clinton to retain Bob Bennett to defend the case, which hit the papers on May 3, 1994. Suddenly, it seemed like this must mean real trouble for the president. He already had David Kendall of Williams & Connolly working full-tilt to defend him in the Whitewater investigation; now he was hiring an even more expensive lawyer – the $475-an-hour man who would be king of the white-collar defense bar – to take on Paula Jones and her hapless solo practitioner from Arkansas.
Bennett, the older brother of conservative luminary William Bennett, had been recommended to the president and Hillary Clinton months before, by Harold Ickes, a top White House official whom Bennett had represented in connection with the Whitewater investigation. According to two sources with indirect knowledge of the discussions, Bennett had initially met with one or both Clintons in late March or early April 1994, not about Paula Jones but about some of their multifarious other legal problems, including the “troopergate” allegations. As it became apparent that Jones was preparing to sue by May 8, 1994, when the statute of limitations would run out, some Clinton insiders thought the best way to keep her case out of the news was to assign it to some obscure lawyer in Arkansas. But then -White House counsel Lloyd Cutler recommended Bennett, according to Cutler. He reasoned that the lawsuit, once filed, would be a big story in any event, and that Bennett was especially skilled at dealing with the media.
Indeed, unlike Kendall – a tight-lipped, old-school lawyer – Bennett had made a name for himself as being especially good at crafting television sound bites and schmoozing with reporters in his office, and was a capable courtroom advocate as well. He was on a roll, after a succession of high-profile engagements, including the Senate’s televised “Keating Five” hearings, in which Bennett had served as special counsel; the defense of aging superlawyer Clark Clifford; and the securing of a presidential pardon for Caspar Weinberger, the former Defense secretary, wiping out his indictment for alleged Iran-contra crimes. As May 1994 began, Bennett was going into sensitive talks with federal prosecutors on behalf of powerhouse then-representative Dan Rostenkowski (D-Illinois), in a criminal investigation that was to culminate in an indictment on May 31, amidst a falling-out between Bennett and Rostenkowski that ended their relationship two days later.
Bennett, who in the past has spent hours talking with me (as he has with many other reporters), spurned a written request I sent him for an interview for this article. Nor did Bennett respond to any of the 31 questions I addressed to White House counsel Jack Quinn on September 24, with a copy to Bennett. Nor did Quinn. Neither man gave a reason, but it may relate to Bennett’s complaint that I treated him unfairly in an article in the July/August 1994 issue of The American Lawyer. The article, “One Client Too Many,” contended that he had failed to consult adequately with Rostenkowski before taking on the Paula Jones matter.
THE COUNTRY LAWYERS
Meanwhile, Daniel Traylor, Jones’s Little Rock lawyer, had come to realize that he needed some real litigators to mount a real lawsuit. But he had trouble finding any who would take on the case. Traylor asked around Little Rock; talked to some big plaintiffs firms; and was put in touch – by Patrick Mahoney, an antiabortion activist, oddly enough – with Patricia Ireland, head of the pro-choice, ultra liberal National Organization for Women.
All in vain. Finally, in late April, the conservative legal grapevine put Traylor in touch with two self-described “country lawyers” with substantial litigation experience, Gilbert Davis and Joseph Cammarata of Fairfax, Virginia. They agreed to take a look at the case, and soon discovered that they would have to work fast: The 180-day statute of limitations for a suit under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act had expired, and the statute of limitations for most other causes of action was about to expire, on May 8.
Davis and Cammarata worked furiously through he first few days and nights of May to beat the statute of limitations. They talked to Jones and Traylor by phone and redrafted and expanded Traylor’s skimpy draft complaint while running across the street periodically to get coffee at a 7-Eleven store. That’s where, in the wee hours of May 4, they also picked up an early edition of The Washington Post. The Post, prompted by the news that the president had retained Bob Bennett, had finally gone ahead with two long articles by Michael Isikoff (who shared a byline on one of the stories with two other Post reporters). The stories, starting on page 1 and filling up an entire inside page, constitute the most complete account of the evidence concerning Jones’s allegations that has been published until now. It had arrived just in time for Davis and Cammarata to add to the complaint allegedly defamatory statements (about Jones) made by Bennett and White House officials to the Post. Later that morning, Jones’s attorneys flew to Little Rock to do what Davis calls “our due diligence.”
They met that day with Traylor, Jones, her husband, and their witnesses, and made sure that Jones had “the fortitude,” and her story the plausibility, to withstand the pressures of a contentious lawsuit against the president, says Davis, who found Jones to be “a warm and sincere human being.” Using Traylor’s office, they continued to rework the complaint, let an expectant throng of reporters know that it would be filed the next day, and got a little sleep.
Their four-count complaint included federal sexual harassment claims premised on two Reconstruction-era civil rights statutes (naming trooper Ferguson as a co-conspirator under one of them), and state law claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamation. Cammarata says they had carefully considered adding another defamation claim, against The American Spectator. But they decided it would not “pass the legal laugh test”: The magazine had merely quoted what trooper Ferguson, whom it had no apparent reason to believe was lying, had said about a woman identified only as “Paula.”
THE PRESIDENT “IN THE ROOM”
Davis and Cammarata recall the next day’s eleventh-hour negotiations with Bennett in a joint interview in the cramped conference room of the modest Fairfax, Virginia, Law Offices of Gilbert K. Davis and Associates. The big, beefy, jovial Davis, who says he’s tried cases all over Virginia and in some 20 states, chuckles when asked what it’s like litigating against superlawyer Bob Bennett and his mega-firm. Citing a news report that Bennett charges $450 (not $475) an hour, Davis quips, “We charge less than half that, and I like to think we’re half as good as they are.”
Both lawyers say that political animus against Clinton was not their reason for taking the case. Davis, who is seeking the 1997 Republican nomination for attorney general of Virginia, describes himself as a “conservative libertarian populist Republican”; Cammarata says he leans to the Republican side, but once worked for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign and is “not just a Republican partisan here.” In addition to being of counsel to Davis, in the spring of 1994 Cammarata had been working as trial counsel with Besozzi, Gavin & Craven, a Clinton-connected Washington, D.C., law firm, which would soon thereafter dismiss Cammarata for taking Jones as a client.
On the morning of May 5, Davis recalls, he called Bob Bennett in response to a phone message that Bennett had left for Traylor. Davis informed Bennett that he and Cammarata were now taking over the case (while keeping Traylor as local counsel), and were planning to file the complaint by 3 P.M. that day. Recalls Davis: “[Bennett] said something to the effect that, ‘Your client has no case. I’ve talked to the president for a long time, and he completely denies that any of this happened. I’ve grilled him for hours and hours, and this didn’t happen.’… “
Davis continues: “And he said, ‘Are you aware there are nude pictures of her? I’ve not seen them.’ And I said, ‘Well, no, if there are, I’d like to see them.’ So they had some knowledge of that already. …
“And I said, ‘Well, let me tell you this: My client contends [that] she can identify distinguishing characteristics in his genital area; so when your client says that he wasn’t even there, that’s to the contrary.’ … And when I told him that, that quieted him down a little bit. … And Bob Bennett said something like, ‘Well, it sure is different from a regular old personal injury case.’ “
The conversation, and several others that day, turned from what Cammarata calls “Bennett’s bluster” to an intensive, last-ditch effort to work out a settlement, the linchpin of which would be some kind of statement by the president to rehabilitate Jones’s reputation. “She wanted an apology,” recalls Cammarata. “She wanted her name cleared. So we weren’t looking for any money.” Jones, her husband, and Traylor were with Davis and Cammarata during these Davis-Bennett phone calls.
After some preliminary negotiations, Bennett said he needed to consult with his client before proceeding further. For his part, Davis wanted an assurance that any preliminary agreement worked out by the lawyers would have the approval of the president. Early in the afternoon, there was another phone conversation. “I’m on the telephone talking to Bob Bennett,” Davis recalls, “and I said. ‘Have you been able to find your client?’ and he said, ‘Yes, he’s in the room.’ And I looked at the others, and put my hand over the phone, and said, ‘He’s in the room.’ “
“When he said that,” adds Cammarata, “it gave me some chills, because here we are, negotiating directly with the president of the United States.”
Minutes later, when Bennett suggested that any agreed-upon statement be read by a White House press spokesman, Davis and Cammarata conferred and insisted that it be publicly recited by the president himself. “Bob said, ‘I don’t know, hold on,’ “Davis recalls, “and then maybe five or ten seconds after that, he said, ‘All right, that’s acceptable. Davis and Cammarata took this to mean that Bennett had just cleared it with the president.
At Bennett’s request, Jones held off filing suit that day – much to the frustration of the horde of news reporters waiting expectantly at the courthouse. According to Davis and Cammarata, Bennett’s most specific proposal, which came later that day, included statements to be issued by the president and Jones, which Bennett and Davis had worked out by phone; at Davis’s request, Bennett had the statements typed up and faxed to Davis in Little Rock that evening. Davis and Cammarata released the statements, together with a facsimile transmission sheet on Skadden’s letterhead bearing Bennett’s name, on October 1, 1994, with a press release detailing the negotiations. Bennett has never questioned the authenticity of the documents or contradicted the specifics of the Davis/Cammarata account.
The president was to say: “I have no recollection of meeting Paula Jones on May 8, 1991, in a room at the Excelsior Hotel. However, I do not challenge her claim that we met there and I may very well have met her in the past. She did not engage in any improper or sexual conduct. I regret any untrue assertions which have been made about her conduct which may have adversely challenged her character and good name. I have no further comment on my previous statements about my own conduct. Neither I nor my staff will have any further comment on this matter.”
Bennett had also faxed a proposed statement by Jones: “I am grateful that the president has acknowledged the possibility that he and I may have met at the Excelsior Hotel on May 8, 1991, and has acknowledged my good name and disagrees with assertions to the contrary. However, I stand by my prior statement of the events.”
Davis and Cammarata had asked for a provision tolling the statute of limitations for six months, so that Jones could still sue if the president or his staff violated the agreement. Davis says Bennett had firmly rejected any tolling agreement as “a deal-breaker.” And while it appeared to Davis that the language faxed by Bennett was “acceptable to Mr. Clinton,” Davis says it “was not completely acceptable to Mrs. Jones.” Still, he says, “I thought we were fairly close,” and might be able to reach agreement the next day.
Then, that night, CNN broadcast claims by unnamed White House sources that the reason Jones had not filed that day was that she realized she didn’t have a case and her family opposed the lawsuit. “It was a lie,” says Davis; the White House knew that the reason for the delay was Bennett’s request for more time to work out a settlement. (Davis does not blame this on Bennett, whom he praises as “a terrific lawyer who keeps his word.”)
The CNN report (and others) prompted Davis to break off negotiations the next morning, in a handwritten, faxed “Dear Bob” letter saying that “the complaint will be filed today” because “further efforts to resolve these matters seem fruitless.” Davis’s letter cited the news reports as evidence “that the ‘no comment’ provisions are very difficult to rely upon” without a tolling agreement. He added: “Other problems exist, including your client’s refusal to make a direct acknowledgment that he was in the hotel suite with Paula, and that he definitely knows her.”
Davis and Cammarata issued their October 1, 1994, press release detailing these negotiations (but not Bennett’s statement about the president being “in the room”) in response to what they viewed as inaccurate comments by Bennett to reporter Ruth Shalit, writing for The New York Times Magazine, on why the negotiations had failed. Bennett had said that Jones’s lawyers “would not agree to any language that included an adamant denial” by the president “that this incident occurred.” In fact, according to Davis, the Bennett-Clinton settlement proposal included no such “adamant denial.” The documents seem to bear him out.
That same day, October 1, Bennett told CNN: “I want to make it clear that these were discussions between lawyers. The president didn’t agree or not agree to anything. I wasn’t going to present anything to the president of the United States unless it first passed my test.” Closely read, Bennett’s statement does not contradict any of the specifics of the Davis/Cammarata account of the negotiations. Davis never claimed that the president had “agreed” in any final, legally binding sense. (Bennett and White House counsel Jack Quinn have not responded to letters in which I asked them to point out any inaccuracies in the foregoing Davis-Cammarata account of the May 5, 1994, settlement talks.)
Davis and Cammarata filed the complaint against Clinton and Ferguson on May 6, in the U.S. courthouse in Little Rock, amid a crush of reporters so chaotic that both men still laugh when they recall the scene. “This case is about the powerful taking advantage of the weak,” Jones said in a prepared statement. Later that day Bennett entertained another throng of reporters at a press conference, dismissing the lawsuit with what instantly became his most famous sound bite: “tabloid trash with a legal caption on it.”
SHE SAID: THE PROPOSITION
Tabloid trash or no, Paula Jones’s complaint contains a detailed narrative account of her allegations, which are interspersed below with available evidence supporting and detracting from her claims.
First, a word about who Paula Corbin Jones (then Paula Corbin) was on May 8, 1991. She was 24 years old, and hailed from the hamlet of Lonoke, 30 miles from Little Rock, where she had barely made it through high school. After coming to the state capital, she had bounced through several office and sales jobs before landing a $6.35 per-hour clerical position at the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission (AIDC), headed by a Clinton appointee. She was engaged to an airline ticket agent and aspiring actor named Stephen Jones.
She was also a curvaceous, big-haired, outgoing, eye-catching woman who sometimes dressed provocatively, was regarded by many as a flirt, and had posed almost nude about four years earlier for a boyfriend who sold the photos to Penthouse in 1994, after Jones had become famous.
The May 8 encounter began in the conference room area of Little Rock’s 19-story Excelsior Hotel, where the AIDC was hosting the “Governor’s Quality Management Conference.” The record is clear that Clinton stopped in and made a speech. Jones was at the registration desk, handing out name tags and literature with her co-worker and close friend Pamela Blackard.
Jones claims that she and Blackard both noticed Clinton staring intently at Jones while he was standing nearby, fielding questions from television reporters. (Blackard said the same to me in an interview.) A few minutes later, according to the published report of Jones’s 1994 account to Michael Isikoff of The Washington Post, trooper Danny Lee Ferguson – who had previously introduced himself by name as a member of the governor’s security detail – approached Jones and said, “The governor said you make his knees knock.”
According to Jones’s complaint, Ferguson returned to the registration table later, about 2:30 P.M., handed Jones a piece of paper with a four-digit suite number written on it, and said the governor would like to meet with her there. “A three-way conversation followed between Ferguson, Blackard, and Jones about what the governor could want,” the complaint says. “Ferguson stated during the conversation: ‘It’s okay, we do this all the time for the governor.’ “Blackard told me she generally recalls such a conversation. The Post quoted her in 1994 as having told Isikoff: “I did say to her… ‘Find out what he wants and come right back…. If you’re that curious, go ahead.’ “
The complaint says that Ferguson escorted Jones to the upstairs floor and pointed out Clinton’s suite to her. (Ferguson’s answer to Jones’s complaint confirms this.) Jones says she knocked and entered, and found herself alone with the governor.
Why did she go? “I was very excited the governor wanted to see me,” Jones said in an interview with Sam Donaldson that was aired on June 16, 1994, on ABC’s Primetime Live. “[W]hen me and my friend [Blackard] had talked about it, we thought we might – could get a job… . That’s the only reason why I would think that he would want me up there…. I did not know him or any of his past before that day.” Pamela Blackard also appeared briefly on the program confirming Jones’s account of the approach.
Trooper Ferguson’s various accounts of these events – to David Brock, to William Rempel of the Los Angeles Times, to fellow troopers, and in his answer to the complaint – lend strong support to Jones’s allegations as to how she ended up alone in a room with Clinton, while suggesting that she had eagerly courted and welcomed any sexual advances by the governor. Here’s what Ferguson told the Los Angeles Times in 1993, according to articles published on May 23 and June 11, 1994, in interviews that were initially off the record:
“Ferguson recalled that Clinton had directed him to approach a woman who was working behind the registration desk at a seminar of the Arkansas Industrial Development Corp. at the Excelsior Hotel in Little Rock. Ferguson said the governor told him that the woman had ‘that come-hither look’ and that he wanted to meet her privately.
“Acting on Clinton’s orders, Ferguson said, he first secured a room by telling the hotel manager that the governor was expecting an important call from the White House and needed a private room… ‘He gave us a room and Clinton sent me down’ to invite Jones to the room, Ferguson said.” Ferguson also told the Times that afterwards Clinton had said, “We only talked.”
It is possible that Ferguson in fact sought out Jones and delivered her to Clinton on his own initiative, for his own purposes, and was lying to the reporters. Possible, but not likely.
Ferguson told what superficially seemed a very different story in his cryptic, carefully lawyered, June 10, 1994, answer to the complaint, which seeks $700,000 in total damages from him and Clinton. By that time (Ferguson has told reporters), he had been leaned on by Clinton operatives and had gotten several phone calls from the president himself, all in 1993.
Ferguson’s answer made no mention of what he had said to Jones, or what Clinton had said to him. Rather, he claimed that before following Ferguson up to the room, Jones had made “several comments to… Ferguson about how she found Governor Clinton to be ‘good-looking’ and about how she thought his hair was sexy,” and had asked him to relay these comments to the governor. (Jones denies this.) But closely read, Ferguson’s answer said nothing inconsistent with his statements to reporters that “Clinton had directed him to approach” Jones before Jones had said anything to Ferguson. And it confirmed a critical element of Jones’s account by admitting “traveling in an elevator with plaintiff Paula Jones and pointing out a particular room of the hotel.”
All this amounts to clear and convincing proof of Jones’s allegation – which has never been specifically denied by the president personally or by his lawyer Bennett – that then-governor Clinton, the boss of Jones’s boss, sent a state trooper to interrupt the 24-year-old state employee’s performance of her job and bring her to his hotel room.
For what purpose? If – as Jones claims she naively hoped at the time – what Clinton had had in mind had been getting her a better job or something like that, the president could have said so by now. The evidence – and the absence of any other plausible explanation – strongly supports Jones’s allegation that the purpose of this exercise was to give Clinton an opportunity to make some kind of sexual overture. And that seems pretty shabby no matter what, exactly, happened in that hotel room. Shabbier than anything Clarence Thomas was ever even accused of doing by the not-exactly-unimpeachable Anita Hill.
Hill said that Thomas as her boss had persistently pestered her in late 1981 and 1982 to date him and talked dirty to her about pornographic movies involving big-breasted women and animals, his own sexual prowess, “Long Dong Silver,” “pubic hair on my Coke,” and the like. Hill did not accuse Thomas of a single overt request for sex or a single unwelcome touching. Indeed, she initially stopped short of alleging that she had been a victim of “sexual harassment” at all. And while Hill recalled objecting to this conduct, she was not too horrified to follow Thomas’s rising star, after the allegedly offensive conduct had started (and, she claimed, stopped for awhile), from the Education Department to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Nor was Hill too horrified to keep in touch with Thomas in subsequent years – getting him to write a letter of recommendation that helped her land a law teaching job at Oral Roberts University in 1983, phoning him repeatedly after she went there, inviting him to make an appearance there, and more.
Indulging for the moment the assumption that Paula Jones is lying about what happened inside the hotel room, and the further assumption that Anita Hill was telling the whole truth, which would be-worse: What Hill says Thomas did? Or what then-governor Clinton almost certainly did in having his trooper fetch him a 24-year-old, star-struck, low-level state worker whom he had never met?
INSIDE THE HOTEL ROOM
Here’s what Jones alleges in her complaint with paragraph numbers and some paragraph breaks omitted – and with a caution that this gets pretty raunchy:
Clinton shook Jones’s hand, invited her in, and closed the door. A few minutes of small talk ensued, which included asking Jones about her job. Clinton told Jones that Dave Harrington is ‘my good friend.’ [He] was [the Clinton-appointed] director of the AIDC [and] Jones’s ultimate superior within the AIDC.
Clinton then took Jones’s hand and pulled her toward him, so that their bodies were in close proximity. Jones removed her hand from his and retreated several feet. However, Clinton approached Jones again. He said: ‘I love the way your hair flows down your back and ‘I love your curves.’ While saying these things, Clinton put his hand on plaintiff’s leg and started sliding it toward the hem of plaintiff’s culottes. Clinton also bent down to attempt to kiss Jones on the neck.
Jones exclaimed, ‘What are you doing?’ and escaped from Clinton’s physical proximity by walking away from him. Jones tried to distract Clinton by chatting with him about his wife.
Asked by reporters in 1994 why she had not simply left the room at that point, Jones said she had always been intimidated by important people and had not wanted to do anything that might upset the governor. She also noted (according to The Washington Post): “I will never forget the look on his face. His face was just red, beet red.” The complaint continues:
Jones later took a seat at the end of the sofa nearest the door. Clinton asked Jones: ‘Are you married?’ She responded that she had a regular boyfriend.
Clinton then approached the sofa and as he sat down he lowered his trousers and underwear exposing his erect penis and asked Jones to ‘kiss it.’ There were distinguishing characteristics in Clinton’s genital area that were obvious to Jones.
Jones became horrified, jumped up from the couch, stated that she ‘was not that kind of girl’ and said: ‘Look, I’ve got to go. She attempted to explain that she would get in trouble for being away from the registration desk. Clinton, while fondling his penis, said: ‘Well, I don’t want to make you do anything you don’t want to do.’ Clinton then stood up and pulled up his pants and said: ‘If you get in trouble for leaving work, have Dave call me immediately and I’ll take care of it.’ As Jones left the room Clinton looked sternly at Jones and said: ‘You are smart. Let’s keep this between ourselves….’
Jones left the hotel suite and came into the presence of trooper Ferguson in the hallway…. Jones said nothing to Ferguson and he said nothing to her during her departure from the suite. Jones was visibly shaken and upset when she returned to the registration desk.
Ferguson, in his answer to the complaint, has painted a very different picture of Jones’s demeanor when he saw her “some 20 to 30 minutes” after she had entered Clinton’s room: She “did not appear to be upset in any way,” and “asked if the governor had a girlfriend and Danny Ferguson answered negatively, and she then responded that she would be the governor’s girlfriend.”
In this respect, Ferguson’s answer was consistent with his 1993 comments to reporters and other troopers. (It was inconsistent in another respect: Ferguson reportedly told David Brock in 1993 that he had “stood by in the hall” while Jones was with Clinton; in his June 1994 answer, he denied this, saying he had gone back downstairs and had next seen Jones there.)
Ferguson also claimed in his answer that when he encountered Jones a week or two later, she asked if Clinton had said anything about her, and wrote down her home phone number for him to give Clinton. “She said to tell him that she was living with her boyfriend,” Ferguson added, “and that if the boyfriend answered, Governor Clinton should either hang up or say that he had a wrong number.” Jones, on the other hand, says in her complaint that while she was delivering some documents from the AIDC to the governor’s office, Ferguson spotted her and said, “Bill wants your phone number. Hillary’s out of town often and Bill would like to see you.” Jones said she refused. On later occasions, the complaint says, Ferguson asked, “How’s Steve?” and made a comment about the Jones’s new baby, which “frightened [her] and made her feel that her activities were being monitored.”
The complaint says Jones was accosted by Clinton sometime after the May 8, 1991, incident, when he spotted her in the Rotunda of the Arkansas State Capitol: “Clinton draped his arm over plaintiff, pulled her close and tightly to his body, and said: ‘Don’t we make a beautiful couple – beauty and the beast?’ Clinton directed this remark to his bodyguard, trooper Larry Patterson.” Trooper Patterson confirmed this in an interview with The Washington Post.
“I KNOW HE GRABBED HER”
The most impressive evidence supporting Paula Jones’s allegations comes from six witnesses – including Pamela Blackard and Debra Ballentine, whom I interviewed separately on October 1, by phone – who have confirmed that she told each of them that same day (or soon thereafter, in three cases) that she had rebuffed sexual advances by Clinton, these witnesses include Jones’s two sisters, her husband, and her mother. All six – including a sister who has impugned Jones’s motives – have said they believe her account of Clinton’s conduct.
None of these witnesses has yet testified, due to the president’s success in blocking discovery. All six gave their first media interviews in February 1994 under the exclusive-access agreement Jones’s lawyer Traylor had made with Michael Isikoff of The Washington Post. Since then, as far as I know, neither Blackard nor Ballentine had spoken to any other reporter in much detail until they spoke with me.
Blackard, now a homemaker, is married, with a 5-year-old son. She lives in Lonoke, Arkansas, where she and Jones had been friends “since we were 2,” forging what she says is “a special bond.” As an eyewitness to some of the events in the hotel, Blackard provides especially strong corroboration. She not only confirms every important aspect of Jones’s account of the Ferguson approach, but gives a vivid description – more detailed than in her affidavit or any previously published article – of what Jones said on her return from Clinton’s hotel room.
“I could see her shaking,” as she came walking back to the registration desk, Blackard says. “I could see real far away something was wrong…. It took her a while to tell me about it. She was upset, kind of shaky, and had to get her breath.” After “five or ten minutes,” Blackard recalls, Jones related what had happened. Blackard says she has difficulty remembering the details offhand now – more than five years later – but that “I know he grabbed her. She said he just kept on moving close to her and putting his hand on her knee, and every time she stopped him he did something else.” I asked Blackard if she recalled Jones describing something dramatic happening just before Jones had left Clinton. “He dropped his pants,” she responded, “and I don’t remember his exact words, but you knew what he wanted.” She seemed hesitant to elaborate. Had Jones indicated that Clinton had wanted something that Jones could do without undressing? Blackard said yes.
Blackard added, “It’s true. I believe her. If someone goes up, and comes back in ten minutes, and is shaking – she didn’t have time to make all that stuff up. And I’m like her best friend [at the time]. Why would she tell me something like that?… And she said, ‘I don’t want you ever to tell anybody.’ ” Why not? I asked. “He’s a governor,” Blackard responded. “He’s powerful. And we both had state jobs. I was pregnant. I was 24. We were, like, two young girls…. We didn’t know what we could do, so we’re like – we’re not telling anybody.” Blackard said she had spoken to no reporters in detail other than Isikoff and me. “I’m so scared of the press, that they would turn things around …. and twist my words around,” she explained.
Debra Ballentine swore in her February 1994 affidavit that Jones had come to her office – a large Little Rock engineering firm where Ballentine was (and is) the marketing coordinator – around 4 P.M. that day. After describing the Ferguson approach and other preliminaries, the affidavit says, “Ms. Jones stated that … she rebuffed three separate unwelcomed sexual advances by the governor. Ms. Jones described in detail the nature of the sexual advances which I will not now recount.”
Ballentine, now 34 (Jones is 30), gave a fuller recounting to me on October 1. While Jones was one of her closest friends, she said, it had been highly unusual for Jones to drop in unannounced at work as she had that day, and that “I could tell just by looking at her that something was wrong.” Jones had started, Ballentine recalls, by saying, “You’re not going to believe what just happened to me, ‘and had then gone through the whole encounter.
Ballentine has confirmed Jones’s essential allegations: “She said he was putting his hands on her legs and he was trying to put his hands up her dress…. She said, ‘Debbie, he pulled his pants down to his knees and he asked me to [perform oral sex] right then.’ … Before she left, he told her, ‘I don’t want to make you do anything you don’t want to do.’ ” Ballentine adds: “He also told her he knew she was a smart girl and her boss – what’s his name? Dave Harrington? – ‘is a good friend of mine,’ and he told her, ‘I know you’re a smart girl and you’re going to do the right thing.’ “
Ballentine recalls that Jones also told her that day about the mysterious so-called “distinguishing mark” that Jones’s complaint says she saw on Clinton, and on which Jones’s lawyers say they are relying to corroborate her account. She added: “I said [to Jones], ‘You need to go to your boss right away’ She said, ‘I can’t – they’re good friends.’ I said, ‘You need to go to the police.’ She said, ‘I can’t – they took me up there.’ She just felt there was nothing she could do…. People just don’t understand why she waited so long. She wouldn’t ever have done anything if that cop [trooper Ferguson] hadn’t told that story [to The American Spectator].”
Ballentine also recalls that Jones was extremely worried that day about how Stephen Jones, then her fiancé and now her husband, would react if he ever found out the lurid details of what had happened.
Is it possible that Jones did something in that hotel room that she feared would get out to Steve Jones or others, and lied to her friends as a cover story that day? Or that they all concocted a big lie in January 1994 after David Brock’s article came out? It’s possible. But Blackard and Ballentine don’t come across as false accusers. Neither has courted publicity, and both – Blackard in particular – at first evinced reluctance to talk to me. Moreover, Blackard’s husband still worked for the AIDC, Jones’s former employer, when Blackard first signed the affidavit in February 1994.
Some other evidence: Both Blackard and Ballentine told me that they had given similar, perhaps more detailed accounts to Michael Isikoff of the Post in 1994 – at a time when their memories were fresher, when Jones’s detailed complaint (which their recollections track so well) had not been drafted, and when these witnesses had had less time to be coached by lawyers than they have now.
Isikoff confirms this. He was quoted in a book by Larry Sabato and S. Robert Lichter, When Should the Watchdogs Bark?, as saying of Blackard and Ballentine: “[They] are enormously impressive and influenced me greatly in pushing for this…. They struck me as highly credible, as people who did not have axes to grind in this. They were spontaneous, they were highly detailed, and they were very up-front. And they’re not out seeking publicity. You can accuse Jones of that, but not these two…. To the extent the story could be checked out, it did check out.”
This hardly comes across in the May 4, 1994, article that the Post finally published. It noted that Blackard and Ballentine had signed affidavits “supporting Jones’s account after conferences in the office of Jones’s attorney, Traylor,” and Blackard’s account of the Ferguson approach and Jones’s departure to meet with Clinton. But all the Post reported about Blackard’s account of Jones’s return was this: “Jones was ‘walking fast’ and ‘shaking.’ She said that Jones had told her that Clinton had made unwanted advances and Jones implored her to tell no one. ‘We were both kind of scared. We weren’t thinking straight. I thought I could lose my job. She thought she could lose her job.’ “
And all that the Post reported from Ballentine’s detailed interviews with Isikoff was that she had observed Jones “breathing really hard” when she came to see Ballentine that day, and that “Ballentine said Jones ‘couldn’t believe she was so stupid for going upstairs.’ ” When I read this to Ballentine, she offered a correction: “That is what I said to her. I said, ‘I couldn’t believe you were so stupid. You know how he [Clinton] is.’ But she didn’t know, and she probably didn’t think it was stupid then.”
Paula Jones also gave detailed accounts of Clinton’s conduct to her two older sisters, according to the sisters. Lydia Cathey, who is about two years older, confirms that she had “ushered her sister into her bedroom, shut the door, and comforted her sister as she cried on the bed,” as reported by the Post.
In an October 9 telephone interview, Cathey added this: “She came over here. She wanted to talk to me. She was very upset. She was bawling. She was shaking. And I’m 100 percent for her. It’s all true.” Had Jones described what Clinton had done? “Down to the very last detail,” says Cathey. “Dropped his drawers and tell [sic] her to ‘kiss it.’ ” Cathey added: “I tried to comfort her. She felt ashamed, even though she hadn’t done anything wrong. She felt awful…. She was afraid she was going to lose her job, that he was going to get her fired, because she ran out of [Clinton’s hotel room]. He was the governor. Every day at work, she was on pins and needles.”
I could not reach Jones’s husband – to whom Jones did not tell the lurid details at the time for fear of wrecking their relationship, according to her complaint. Nor have I been able to reach her mother or her sister Charlotte Brown.
Here’s what the Post published from their interviews with Isikoff: Stephen Jones said Paula told him at the time that Clinton had made a pass at her. Delmar Corbin, Jones’s extremely religious, churchgoing mother, said that Jones told her within a couple of days that Clinton had “wanted to put his hands on her and kiss her,” but she “didn’t tell me near as much as she told her sisters I think because she knows how much it would hurt me.” Charlotte Brown, who is about six years older than Jones, said she had said in a ” ‘matter-of-fact’ way that Clinton had propositioned her” that day.
Brown has drawn more publicity than all of the other five Jones witnesses combined, because she has aggressively trashed Jones’s motives in going public – and caused a major rift in the family – by asserting that Jones did not seem upset on May 8, 1991, and that Jones had said in early 1994 that “whichever way it went, it smelled money.” Her husband, Mark Brown, has said that he thinks Jones made the whole thing up; early on, he sought out the Clinton defense team to volunteer his help.
Nonetheless, in a February 1994 interview with Isikoff, Charlotte Brown provided rather strong confirmation for the essence of Jones’s story. Most of it was left out of his May 4 article. More was mentioned in his May 6 article reporting on a May 5 television appearance in which Charlotte Brown trashed her sister and said Jones had been “thrilled” on May 8, 1991. Isikoff noted that in his interview with Brown in February 1991 Brown had said that on the day of Jones’s alleged harassment, Jones told her:” ‘This guard came up to [Jones] and told her that Bill Clinton wanted to see her. She told me when she met him, he asked her to have oral sex and she refused…. Asked if she believed her sister’s story, she said she did because she had never known Jones to lie.”
Taken together, these six witnesses, all of whom have said Jones told them contemporaneously about Clinton’s unwelcome advances, provide far stronger corroboration than has ever been mustered on behalf of Anita Hill. While four witnesses testified that Hill had told them in vague, general terms of being sexually harassed, only one of them (Hill’s friend Susan Hoerchner) said Hill had identified Thomas as the harasser. The other three said Hill had complained (much later) of harassment by an unnamed “supervisor.” And there is at least some evidence suggesting that Hill could have been referring to someone other than Thomas in her complaints to all four witnesses.
Hoerchner – who had pressed Hill after Thomas’s nomination to go public with her charges – confidently asserted in her initial media interviews and Senate staff deposition that Hill’s complaints of having been sexually harassed by her boss had come in phone calls before Hoerchner had moved from Washington to the West Coast in September 1981. But Hill claimed Thomas’s offensive behavior had started some three months after that. When this contradiction was pointed out, Hoerchner revised her testimony, saying, “I don’t know for sure” when Hill first spoke of sexual harassment. In addition, when asked by a Senate Republican whether she had ever filed a sexual harassment charge herself, Hoerchner said no; when confronted with a record showing that in fact she had filed such a charge, against a fellow workman’s compensation judge, she responded, “I cannot say that I didn’t.”
Despite the relative weakness of Hill’s corroborating witnesses, every scintilla of seeming corroboration that has been offered for Hill’s story has been eagerly scooped up by, among others, The Washington Post, even while it was deep-sixing the far more compelling accounts of Pamela Blackard and Debra Ballentine. The leading example was the Post’s October 9, 1994, story rehashing three-year old allegations by former Thomas subordinate Angela Wright. At over 6,000 words, it was longer than all Post articles focusing on the evidence in the Paula Jones case combined. “Her Testimony Might Have Changed History,” the headline announced. “Angela Wright remembers thinking: I believe her because he did it to me,” the nut paragraph declared.
Did what? The punchlines, deep in the article, were a bit suspect: “Clarence Thomas did consistently pressure me to date him,” Wright told the Post, and had once showed up unannounced at her apartment. Once, the article said, he had “commented on the dress I was wearing” and asked her breast size. And: “I remember him specifically saying that one woman had a big ass.” But lost in the depths of this article were the facts that Wright had been fired by Thomas (and at least two other employers) for poor job performance, including being rude and disruptive to colleagues; that three witnesses said they had heard her vow to get Thomas back; and that Wright did not even claim that Thomas’s alleged conduct amounted to sexual harassment.
The Post’s takeout on Angela Wright proved to be only the opening salvo in a huge wave of publicity in the fall of 1994 revisiting the Hill-Thomas episode – most of it palpably slanted to overstate the quality of the evidence against Thomas. The centerpiece was Strange Justice, a best-seller by Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson of The Wall Street Journal, which published a long excerpt leading with a claim by a woman of extremely doubtful credibility (who has since suggested that Mayer and Abramson distorted her account) that in the summer of 1982, Thomas’s apartment had in it “a huge, compulsively organized stack of Playboy magazines,” and walls “adorned with nude centerfolds.” The smoothly tendentious Mayer-Abramson book was greeted with uncritical hosannas by news organs ranging from The New Yorker to Newsweek to ABC’s Nightline, Turning Point and Good Morning America. Meanwhile, all of the same news organs were ignoring Paula Jones and her far stronger, far more current evidence of far more odious alleged conduct by a far more powerful man – the incumbent President of the United States.
HE SAID: NONDENIAL DENIALS
What says the accused?
President Clinton’s only public comment about Jones’s allegations (unless I’ve missed one) came at a photo session the day her suit was filed: “Bob Bennett spoke for me…. I’m not going to dignify this by commenting on it.” That’s it. Clinton has never personally confirmed or denied any of the particulars of her allegations. Bennett has persuaded the courts to let him defer even a formal answer to the complaint. And the media have barely noticed that Clinton has taken the moral equivalent of the Fifth Amendment.
Meanwhile, the Clinton legal and public relations teams seem long ago to have abandoned the statement that Clinton “was never alone in a hotel with her,” issued by then-White House communications director Mark Gearan the day Jones went public. One indication that this line of defense has become inoperative was the alleged May 5, 1994, Clinton-Bennett proposal to settle the matter by offering to have the president read in public a statement conceding the possibility that he had met with Jones “in a room at the Excelsior Hotel,” and asserting that “she did not engage in any improper or sexual conduct.” Now, the operative defense seems to be Bennett’s assertion that Clinton has “no recollection” of meeting Jones. It reminds me of what President Nixon said (on tape) to three top aides on March 21, 1973: “Perjury is an awful hard rap to prove…. Be damned sure you say, ‘I don’t remember,… I can’t recall.’ “
Compare Clarence Thomas. He angrily denied Anita Hill’s allegations under oath in Senate Judiciary Committee testimony. Of course, he, unlike Clinton, really didn’t have the option of similarly ducking by refusing to “dignify” Hill’s allegations and having aides and lawyers issue nondenial denials – not if he wanted to get to the Supreme Court.
Defenders of President Clinton (like those of Clarence Thomas) stress with some cogency that the conduct of which he stands accused by Paula Jones is so far out of character that the woman must be lying. “What she [Jones] alleges is simply inconceivable as Clinton behavior,” was the 1994 reaction of Betsey Wright, who had been Clinton’s chief of staff in Arkansas and helped his 1992 campaign combat allegations of extramarital affairs – ” bimbo eruptions,” in Wright’s now-famous phrase. The same Betsey Wright has also said, however, that she was convinced that state troopers in Clinton’s security detail were soliciting women for him and he for them, as four of them have alleged. Wright said so both in late 1993, to David Gergen, then a top White House official (according to James Stewart’s 1996 book, Blood Sport), and in interviews with reporter David Maraniss of The Washington Post (according to his 1995 Clinton biography, First in His Class).
After receiving a phone call from the president in which the Maraniss book was discussed, Wright, who now is executive vice-president of the Wexler Group, a Washington lobbying firm, issued a statement through her lawyer denying Maraniss’s account of these interviews. Maraniss responded that he had double-checked every detail with Wright, and she had confirmed them all, before publication. (Neither Wright nor Gergen returned my phone calls seeking comment before press time.)
All in all, there is strong evidence that Clinton had a pattern and practice of using state troopers to hustle women. That alone is not sexual harassment (though when the governor does so with reason to know that the woman is a state employee busy doing her job, it’s getting close). But in the end it comes down to this: Either Clinton harassed Paula Jones on May 8, 1994, in a fashion that seems out of character, or she lied most compellingly to her friends Blackard and Ballentine immediately afterwards, or they are all lying now.
Let’s not forget that just as nobody but Jones has publicly accused Clinton of sexual harassment or similarly reckless sexual advances, nobody but Anita Hill has publicly accused Clarence Thomas of talking as dirty as Hill said he talked. Indeed, the Clarence Thomas behavior alleged by Anita Hill seemed as inconceivable to many of his friends and colleagues as does the Bill Clinton behavior alleged by Paula Jones. A parade of female current and former colleagues and subordinates of Thomas came forward as character witnesses for him in 1991. They said that he unfailingly treated women with respect, nurtured their careers, and was proper to the point of prudishness in his demeanor in the workplace.
Some acquaintances of questionable credibility (such as Angela Wright) did suggest that Thomas sometimes spoke crudely, or peremptorily announced things like “you’re going to be dating me.” Others have recalled, more credibly, that Thomas had a taste for pornography, and for talking and laughing about it, at least while he was at Yale Law School, years before meeting Hill. Many Thomas foes took this as confirmation that he must have talked about pornography to Hill. But any interest Thomas may once have had in talking about dirty pictures with people who did not object is no better proof that he harassed Hill than Clinton’s widely reported interest in extramarital adventures is proof that he harassed Jones.
A QUESTION OF CHARACTER
Probably Jones’s biggest problem is that she is generally regarded as a loose woman unworthy of belief. Indeed, many people – especially lawyers and others of the intellectual and monied classes – need only see a newspaper photograph of Jones, with her big hair and overdone makeup, to discount her claims. (That was my first reaction, at least.) “Tabloid trash” – Bennett’s phrase – resonates.
And then there are the almost-nude photos of Jones frolicking in bed that were taken by a faithless former lover in about 1987, sold by him to Penthouse in 1994, and published in its January 1995 issue, after Jones had unsuccessfully sued to enjoin publication. The existence of such photos of Jones was, as noted above, one of the first things that Bennett mentioned, in his first conversation with her lawyer Gilbert Davis, according to Davis.
The class bias that helps explain why Anita Hill received so much warmer a reception in elite circles than Paula Jones may be a healthy thing, to the extent that it evidences the (relatively) declining significance of race as a source of prejudice and stereotyping. But it has not yet been proven that unsophisticated, big-haired, makeup-caked women from small hamlets in Arkansas – even ones who pose topless for sleazeball boyfriends – are any less likely to tell the truth than Yale-educated law professors like Anita Hill. To the contrary, lawyers are trained in devising clever ways of distorting the truth.
It’s true, and relevant, that Jones’s brother-in-law Mark Brown has called her a teaser and manipulator of men who would do anything for money or fame, and a sexual exhibitionist who had proudly displayed nude photos of herself to family members. But Brown – whom Jones and her sister Lydia have both dismissed as “crazy” – may not himself be the most credible of characters. According to the Post, in his home of Cabot, Arkansas, “he was led out of a town council meeting [in 1993] for shouting vulgarities at the mayor,” who “says the…. Marine Corps dropout is known around town for ‘blowing off’ in restaurants.”
Friends like Debra Ballentine have described Jones as friendly, open, honest, naive, and totally apolitical. And Jones, unlike Hill, has not been caught in any significant lies of much relevance to the alleged harassment. (In fact, her lawyers, like Hill’s, claim that she has passed a polygraph test; the examiner, James Wilt, of Vienna, Virginia, provided me with a copy of a letter he sent Davis stating that “it is my opinion Mrs. Jones was truthful in her responses” to questions about whether she had lied in describing her most graphic allegations against Clinton during a May 24, 1994, polygraph examination.)
While Hill’s specific allegations about Thomas cannot definitively be proved or disproved, some of her other statements appear to have been deliberately misleading. In sworn testimony one morning, for example, Hill denied – five times – any recollection of having been told that she might be able to spur Thomas to withdraw merely by making a confidential statement detailing her allegations, without ever going public. But that afternoon, after conferring with her lawyers, Hill corrected herself, volunteering that “there was some indication [by a key Democratic staffer] that [Thomas] might not wish to continue the process” if confronted with her statement.
Hill’s explanations of some other matters were patently incredible, such as her suggestions that the main reason she had followed her alleged harasser from the Education Department to the EEOC was that she feared she might otherwise find herself jobless. The overall pattern, detailed by Suzanne Garment in “Why Anita Hill Lost” in the January 1992 Commentary, was a “disquieting quality that she displayed…. as [being] more ambitious and calculating than she let on. Her testimony on this subject seemed to show a lack of candor, and this fact alone may have been a basis for mistrusting her.” She also had far stronger ideological disagreements with Thomas than she let on.
In addition, while Hill was praised by many friends and colleagues, others, like former EEOC colleague Phyllis Berry (who had been fired by Thomas), told the Senate that Hill was “untrustworthy, selfish, and extremely bitter,” after Thomas had given someone else a promotion Hill had wanted.
Much of the disbelief with which Jones has been received is attributable to her reputation (as of 1994) for flirtatiousness, provocative dress, and having slept around, as detailed in publications including People and Penthouse. It’s reasonable, and legally relevant, to speculate that Jones’s appearance, demeanor, and willingness to meet with Clinton alone for no apparent purpose may have emboldened him to think that sexual overtures would be welcome. But “that doesn’t mean that she had bad character or should be considered a target for some predator,” in the words of her lawyer Gilbert Davis. And it’s odd to hear such traits held against Jones by feminists who would ordinarily go ballistic at any suggestion that a flashy-looking woman was “asking for it.”
When Anita Hill came forward with legally dubious, ten-year-old claims long after any and all relevant statutes of limitations had run, you didn’t hear many of them dismissing her claims as legally frivolous. Jones, it seems, is different. “I read the complaint,” said Lynne Bernabei, a plaintiffs sexual harassment lawyer in Washington, on a CNN talk show, “and from a legal perspective, it seems like the worst she describes is womanizing, unwelcomed sexual advances, which may be morally or otherwise politically repugnant to people, but is simply not illegal.”
Wow. This is a feminist?
It’s true that Paula Jones’s legal claims have their weaknesses, especially her rather vague and implausible allegations that her supervisors at the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission discriminated against her on the job in retaliation for having displeased the governor by refusing to submit to his advances. But her legal theories are hardly frivolous. A single, extremely outrageous act of sexual harassment, without much more, can arguably support a “hostile working environment” claim, both under Title VII and under the older civil rights statutes cited by Jones.
THE TRUTH WILL OUT HERE
The president’s choice of a legal strategy is hardly what one might expect from a falsely accused person victimized by a complete fabrication. If “nothing happened in that hotel,” as Bennett says, why not simply reveal all relevant facts, cooperate in discovery, seek summary judgment, and get rid of the case? Why spend $2 million in lawyering, desperately seeking to prevent the evidence from coming out? And if nothing really happened, why did then-White House special counsel Lloyd Cutler go on television on May 24, 1994, and warn: “The entire presidency could turn on the occurrence of a trial like this” ?
Jones’s lawyers have visions of putting the president between the rock of damaging admissions and the hard place of possible perjury; of troopers testifying about a pattern and practice of Clintonian predation; of grilling alleged former lovers of the president to ask them if they noticed a “distinguishing mark”; of compelling a physicial examination of the president and getting his medical records (much sought after by the Dole campaign) to find any such mark, or any evidence that one has been removed. But Bennett has shut them out, so far, by losing on the presidential immunity claim in the district court and appealing, and then losing in the Eighth Circuit and appealing again, first for en bane review, then for Supreme Court review. Meanwhile, there has been no factual answer for Clinton to file. No depositions. No interrogatories. No discovery into whether there is, in fact, a distinguishing mark. No trial.
Assuming Clinton’s reelection, most handicappers think that the Supreme Court will reject at least the broadest aspects of Clinton’s claim and send the case back to lower courts for further proceedings. Bennett has a wave of other motions to dismiss up his sleeve – for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted and for excessive delay before filing suit, at least. But there could well be discovery, and possibly even a trial, during a Clinton second term. “The truth will out here,” says Jones attorney Gil Davis, optimistically. “If she’s not telling the truth, well, shame on her.”
But given that Paula Jones’s claims against Bill Clinton are both more serious by far than Anita Hill’s against Clarence Thomas, and supported by much stronger corroborating evidence, why have the media and a lot of other people acted as though the opposite were true?
Several reasons. Most obviously, Anita Hill’s charges were spread before the public precisely at the time when Thomas was under the white-hot spotlight of a Supreme Court confirmation proceeding. She was a superficially impressive accuser, far more so than Jones. The subsequent televised hearings that transfixed the nation made it impossible to ignore her charges. And many people – not just liberals – had already been so put off by Thomas’s evasive performance and lack of candor about his views on issues, in his initial hearing, that they were hardly prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt when he swore passionately that not one particle of Hill’s detailed account was true.
Jones’s allegations, on the other hand, were so seamy, and charged Clinton with such incredibly depraved conduct, and first came to light in such a suspect way, that a lot of people didn’t want to think about them. One reason was scandal fatigue: With so many allegations of fraud, perjury, and other wrongdoing swirling around the Clintons, most people had little interest in thinking about what many news organizations dismissed as just another “sex scandal” – especially one in which there can never be dispositive proof of exactly what happened. And they didn’t have to think about it, partly because neither Paula Jones nor Bill Clinton was testifying at any televised hearing, and partly because the media didn’t publish the evidence.
The disparate treatment of the two episodes also has something to do with the difference between justices and presidents. If we don’t like a Supreme Court nominee, we can always hope that if he’s defeated, we’ll like the next one better; if Clintons defeated, we know who we’ll get: Bob Dole. Moreover, we expect our justices to be wise, pure, honest, moral, reflective oracles in black robes, thinking deep thoughts in their marble temple and saving us from our baser selves. Presidents are different. If Bill Clinton’s political success has taught us anything, it is that a president can win strong public approval despite broad and deep public doubts as to his moral character and truthfulness. There also seems to be a widespread assumption that whatever it takes to clamber that high on the slippery pole of political success, and then to do the messier aspects of the job, can only be found in a person driven by an almost superhuman lust for power and other gargantuan appetites.
But ultimately, an inescapable part of the disparate treatment of Thomas and Clinton is simple political orientation. One of the most striking things about the Hill-Thomas battle was how many people seemed confident that they knew that he (or she) was telling the truth, before the evidence was in, and how almost everyone who believed her happened to be on the liberal side, and almost everyone who believed him on the conservative side. Now, with Paula Jones, there’s been something of an ideological inversion.
HOW TO EXPLAIN THE MAINSTREAM
What explains the media’s manifest disdain for Paula Jones and Clarence Thomas, and admiration for Anita Hill? Part of it is class bias against what one Washington bureau chief called “some sleazy woman with big hair coming out of the trailer parks.” But that’s not all of it. Not, that is, unless you believe that the press would have given similar coverage to a similar accuser, making similar allegations, supported by similar evidence, against Newt Gingrich, or Jesse Helms, or George Bush, or Steve Forbes.
That’s not what I believe. I think that the political orientations of most reporters, editors, and producers are at work here. It’s no accident that in a survey by The Freedom Forum and the Roper Center of 139 Washington, D.C., bureau chiefs and congressional correspondents, 89 percent of respondents said they had voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 7 percent for then-President Bush. Mickey Kaus, then of The New Republic, was more honest than most of his colleagues when he wrote after Jones’s February 1994 press conference: “I thought it wasn’t a big story, but not because I didn’t believe it…. How can reporters justify ignoring Jones while paying so much attention to Anita Hill or the accusers of Senator Packwood?… Clinton is… the best president we’ve had in a long time. That is the unspoken reason that the sex charges haven’t received as much play as you might expect…. Few journalists want to see the president crippled.”
Not this president, anyway.
If nothing else, these two episodes illustrate how hard it is for any of us to see clearly through the fog of preconception in which we all live to a greater or lesser degree. I would suggest, however, that those who have made Anita Hill a heroine, Clarence Thomas a goat, and Paula Jones a pariah, need to try harder to overcome their prejudices. They need to look the facts in the face.