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A Paula Jones Postmortem

By Rustin C. Silverstein

For once, an Arkansas woman from Bill Clinton's past has surfaced and actually brought him good news.

On Wednesday, Federal District Judge Susan Webber Wright threw out Paula Corbin Jones' sexual misconduct lawsuit against President Clinton. Wright, once Professor Clinton's law student, is a Republican judge appointed to the Federal bench by former president Bush. She ruled that Jones' case lacked the tangible evidence of sexual harassment and emotional distress needed to justify a trial against the President. As a result of this ruling, Jones' brief encounter with fame seems to have come to an end. She will now disappear from the political scene just as quickly as Monica S. Lewinsky burst onto it.

We should welcome this news. Legal issues aside, Judge Wright's ruling has saved us from a long, hot summer of tawdry trial revelations about the President's sexual history and anatomy and spared us the spectacle of a media feeding frenzy at Camp Little Rock concealed by a facade of earnest journalism.

The dismissal of the trial means that Clinton avoids the potential for even more personal embarrassment. (Although at this point, how much worse could it get?) Further, with impeachment now a politically-suicidal option for the Republicans, he can focus on salvaging the remainder of his term. His fellow Democrats can more comfortably stand by their Booster-in-Chief as they head into the '98 campaign.

The Paula Jones episode has been like a tornado that destroys the outlying trailer parks but spares the city. The criminal investigation it spawned, while not politically devastating, was certainly damaging.

Although her claim of harassment may have been found to be groundless, neither the court of Judge Wright nor public opinion has exonerated Clinton from claims of extramarital wandering. The stories of Jones, Lewinsky and Katherine Willey are still out there--buttressed by the President's own admission of an affair with Gennifer Flowers in his deposition for the Jones case. It is unlikely that Clinton's standing and legacy will ever be able to rise above these indelible stains on his past. Although his approval ratings are high, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to look at this man again without thinking, "Why can't he just keep it zipped?"

One lesson of this fiasco has been that the Office of the President has been exposed as incredibly vulnerable. Jones has demonstrated that a single person armed with shallow, dubious accusations and backed by wealthy, politically-motivated contributors can distract our chief executive and nearly cripple his ability to govern.

Sadly, the most significant damage done by this episode is not to Clinton or even the Presidency. Rather, it can be seen in the corrosive effects it will have on our faith and trust in our leaders. While many Americans say they continue to support Clinton, it is undeniable that, thanks to the can of worms opened by Jones' lawsuit, millions of Americans who supported and believed in the president now feel duped.

When he was running in 1992, Clinton deflected charges of infidelity by explaining Hillary and he had put past difficulties behind them and the American people should too. Those of us who believed in what he stood for accepted this and supported him despite the questions about his past. The deal struck between the voters and candidate Clinton went something like this: "We'll overlook your past indiscretions and support you with a clearer conscience as long as you behave yourself."

Now, that deal has been broken. Not only was President Clinton not completely honest about Flowers, but as the strong circumstantial evidence surrounding the Lewinsky affair seems to suggest, he hasn't behaved himself either. To make matters worse, those who supported and defended Clinton now have to suffer the "I told you so" taunts of Clinton-hating friends.

It is always difficult to place your trust in someone else--even more so once that trust has been broken. Nobody likes to feel like they've been had. The millions of Clinton supporters who believed in their president now won't get fooled again. Jones and Clinton both contributed something we definitely do not need more of--cynicism. It's not fair to just blame Jones and her supporters for this ugly episode. Much of the responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of the man in the Oval Office. Had he kept up his end of the deal, the damage done would have been significantly less.

Rustin C. Silverstein '99 is a government concentrator in Lowell House. "On Politics" appears on alternate Fridays.

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