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Charges Evoke Fighting Words From President Clinton Defends First Lady; Court Clears Way For Harassment Trial

The White House appeared to be getting a little punchy Tuesday from shots the president and Hillary Clinton have been taking recently in the press, Congress and in court.

The president first let it be known that he’d like to punch a New York Times columnist in the nose for focusing on Hillary Clinton’s statements on the Whitewater real estate case and concluding that she is a “congenital liar.”

His anger at columnist William Safire was reiterated at day’s end while announcing the breakdown of budget talks. He told reporters that if he were an ordinary citizen, “I’d like to give the article what it deserves.”

While Bill Clinton responded Tuesday to the Safire column, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit ruled, 2 to 1, that a sexual-harassment lawsuit filed by a former Arkansas state employee, Paula Corbin Jones, against the president can go to trial while he is in office.

The opinion overturns a December 1994 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Susan Webber Wright in Arkansas. Wright had said that since the suit involved alleged conduct before Clinton became president, a trial could wait until after his White House service ends.

In disagreeing, the three-judge appeals panel said, “The president, like all other government officials, is subject to the same laws that apply to all other members of our society. A sitting president is not immune from civil suits for his unofficial acts.”

Jones has charged that in 1991, then-Gov. Clinton harassed her during an encounter in a Little Rock hotel suite, suggesting that she perform oral sex on him. Clinton has denied that such an encounter took place.

On Tuesday, Clinton’s lawyer, Robert Bennett, said he would appeal Tuesday’s ruling to the full 8th Circuit. If the appeals court turns him down, Bennett said, the next stop would be the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bennett told The Associated Press he expects the high court to hear the case because “some very important constitutional issues” are involved. If the case did go to the Supreme Court, it is unlikely the justices would render an opinion before Election Day, Nov. 5.

That guarantees that the character issue will confront the president throughout the campaign.

Gilbert Davis, a lawyer for Jones, said Tuesday that barring a reversal on appeal, he would seek to conduct a deposition of Clinton. “I would imagine the president’s credibility, the matter of conduct, things of that nature certainly would be topics that could come up,” he said.

Clinton’s legal troubles are compounded by those of the first lady. Last Wednesday, the White House released a memo from former aide David Watkins in which he said Hillary Clinton instigated the 1993 dismissal of seven career White House travel office employees. The First Lady has denied such a role.

Then last Friday, the White House released long-missing Rose Law Firm billing records showing that Hillary Clinton, then a partner in the Little Rock firm, did some $7,000 worth of work - about 60 hours over l5 months in 1985 and 1986 - for Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan, the now-defunct institution operated by the Clintons’ Whitewater land investment partner James McDougal. Hillary Clinton has argued that her work for Madison was minimal.

Then Monday, Safire weighed in on the opinion page of the New York Times:

“Drip by drip, like Whitewater torture, the case is being made that she is compelled to mislead, and to ensnare her subordinates and friends in a web of deceit,” Safire wrote, citing what he called “Travelgate” and the billing-records disclosure.

That prompted White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry to tell reporters Tuesday that President Clinton might like to punch Safire in the nose. But McCurry added that “the president, being president, knows he can’t possibly do such a thing.”

Still, McCurry said, the column was “an outrageous personal attack that has no basis in fact” and “the president, if he were not the president, would have delivered a more forceful response to that on the bridge of Mr. Safire’s nose.”

Clinton seemed to be taking a more light-hearted approach by the time the question came up at an afternoon news conference devoted mostly to budget matters. Asked if it was true he wanted to give Safire a punch, he smiled broadly but didn’t deny it.

“Well, what I said was, you know when you’re President, there are a few more constraints on you than if you’re an ordinary citizen,” Clinton said. “If I were an ordinary citizen, I might give the article the response that it deserves.”

Taken together, the revival of the Paula Jones allegations Tuesday and the White House revelations last week set the stage for a new level of attacks on the Clintons’ credibility.

Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think tank here, said, “Every story like this gives the news media the opportunity to rehash the old material. The ‘anyone-but-Bill-and-Hillary’ people are reminded why they felt that way in first place.”

With the president hanging tough against GOP budget proposals, Clinton’s poll numbers had been on the rise. Polls in December put Clinton’s job approval rating at 51 to 55 percent.

But a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll released Monday showed his approval rating had dipped to 42 percent.

Hillary Clinton herself wasn’t heard from publicly Tuesday, but her spokesman,Neel Lattimore, said so far as he knew she had not entered Tuesday’s Clinton-Safire dustup. “She will leave that to the president’s discretion,” Lattimore said, “whether he will bop someone or not.”