January 14, 1998 in Nation/World

Jones Case Pushes Limit Of National Propriety Clinton Is Questioned Saturday In Sexual Harassment Suit

Steve Goldstein Knight-Ridder

Take away the he said-she said, the political partisanship and the legal conundrum of what constitutes sexual harassment, and the spectacle of the president of the United States being asked whether he solicited the sexual favors of a young woman inspires a basic gut reaction.

Gross. Enough. A little dignity music, please.

After all, this IS the guy, for better or worse, whom we elected.

On Saturday, President Clinton is scheduled to be questioned - in the White House - by attorneys for Paula Corbin Jones about what happened on May 8, 1991, in the Excelsior Hotel in Little Rock, Ark., when Clinton was governor and Jones was a state employee.

Jones, who is expected to be in the room for this deposition, contends that Clinton summoned her to his hotel room, exposed himself and asked her to perform oral sex. The president has denied Jones’ claim.

This is the stuff of “Boogie Nights,” not “A Thousand Days.”

It’s as if pomp and prestige of the presidency has been telescoped into a peep show. Many of us want to turn away from an unseemly sight, once titillating and now, ineluctably, distasteful.

“We have this stark occurrence of this most personal information being sought from the sitting president,” said Robert Schmuhl, who teaches American studies at Notre Dame. “One wonders if this is the line - and will the reaction bring us back to some standard of propriety?”

The larger question, Schmuhl said, “is whether there is even privacy for public officials anymore?”

And it will only get worse for Clinton - and for us - if the case ever goes to trial.

Clinton is apparently the first president interviewed under oath as a defendant in a court case. He most certainly is the first to be interrogated by lawyers about sexual misconduct.

Hoping perhaps to exploit the White House deposition as a shame factor, attorneys for Jones are once again reportedly angling for a settlement before the scheduled May trial. The asking price is $2 million and a Clinton apology.

Yet for some, the nadir of the affair was reached last fall when, after a regular medical exam, a doctor at Bethesda Naval Hospital felt compelled to announce that Clinton had no genital abnormalities.

This resulted from Jones’ claim after she filed suit in 1994 that she could identify “distinguishing characteristics” on Clinton’s genitals. The assertion spurred the sort of speculation about the commander-in-chief’s privates usually found in the letters columns of Hustler and Penthouse magazines.

Betty Glad, a political psychologist specializing in the presidency who teaches at the University of South Carolina, said most Americans still have the notion that the president, while not above the law, is still a special figure.

“People don’t want to get into all this mud,” she said. “It leads to a kind of cognitive dissonance. They think, ‘We had an election, we chose this guy, he’s doing OK We don’t want to hear this stuff.’

Most people don’t want to know what people do in their bedrooms, or cars or stairwells, and the president is no different.

“A majority of people feel that public officials have their private lives, and that this shouldn’t be brought into the political arena,” said Walter Williams, an anthropologist specializing in gender relations at the University of Southern California.

The revulsion stems from the quaint notion that the presidency deserves a little dignity. It’s like catching your naked neighbor framed in a lighted window as you jog past in the pre-dawn darkness.

Run faster.

Jones adviser Susan Carpenter-McMillan said Jones wants to “sit across the table from the man … she wants to look him in the eye.”

“I don’t think he’s going to be too upset being in a room with Paula Jones,” said Clinton attorney Robert Bennett.

But do we want to look at this tableau? And how will we feel in the morning?

Georgetown University sociology professor Suzanna Walters said that despite a seemingly bottomless obsession with the private lives of celebrities, there is a feeling of “distaste” because this involves the president.

“This is the Leader of the Free World being scrutinized in a way that no other president has been scrutinized,” she said.

In fact, the president Clinton most admires, John F. Kennedy, appears to have had a most extraordinary extracurricular sex life during his “thousand days” in the White House.

But the most lurid of all the tell-all Kennedy books, Seymour Hersh’s “The Dark Side of Camelot,” whipped up a “Dear me!” backlash with revelations about bathtub orgasms and other sexcapades.

And Kennedy was hardly a pioneer, historians say.

“If presidents in the past had been removed from office for sexual activity,” said anthropologist Williams, “we would have lost the talents of a lot of effective leaders.”

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