Black like him

Despite the Starr report's dirty details, Paula Jones' case against the nation's "first black president" hinges as much on race as on sex

In litigation as in politics, fortunes turn suddenly. And since the case of Jones vs. Clinton lies at the crossroads of both, the relative positions of the two sides have been swapping faster than Yankee baseball cards.X X X XXX XNearly two months have passed since President Clinton went on national television and came clean, sort of, about his "improper relationship" with former intern Monica Lewinsky. As he did so, Paula Jones and her Dallas lawyers were left with the rest of the herd, learning about the presidential stonewall on national television.

Despite the fact that Jones' lawyers were the first to press allegations of an affair between the president and Lewinsky, no one offered thanks--not the Republican leadership, not Matt Drudge, not MSNBC's shareholders, not even the Office of Independent Counsel. More importantly, no one offered an advance copy of Starr's report. Jones' lawyers had long assumed that the president lied when he denied the Lewinsky affair in sworn testimony in Jones' case, but just like everyone else, they had to wait for Starr to prove it. So, this summer as Starr boxed in his prey, the Jones team went quietly about its business, tending to paying cases and preparing the appeal of Jones' sexual harassment suit against Clinton.

"The OIC has always kind of kept us at arm's length," partner Wes Holmes explains. "I guess they really had to." And so it was that on the afternoon of September 11, in their Stemmons Freeway offices, the six-lawyer firm of Rader, Campbell, Fisher and Pyke was busy along with everyone else downloading the goods from the Internet.

And just like that, the worm had turned. Again.
What a gift the Starr report seemed to be for Jones. There was the president, who in Jones' suit had sworn he never propositioned a federal-or-state-employee-not-his-wife, admitting that he had an "improper relationship" with a White House intern. There was his laughable parsing of the definition of sex. There were the Lewinsky love letters he claimed he never received and the presidential gifts to Lewinsky hidden beneath the bed of Clinton's secretary. Best of all, there was the strikingly similar pattern: Jones was a lowly Arkansas state employee when, she claims, then-Gov. Clinton flashed her in a hotel room and asked her for oral sex.

None of this was likely to sit well with U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, who dismissed Jones' suit against the president last spring. Wright was the one who ruled that Lewinsky and the president had to answer all of those nosy questions and pony up those letters and gifts to begin with. She also is the one who will preside over Jones' case if her lawyers persuade the 8th U.S Court of Appeals to reinstate it. Whatever happens in Congress with the Starr report, it looks as if the president may have to explain himself to one mad-as-hell federal judge.

Yet Jones' lawyers seemed unable to believe their fortune. After viewing Starr's report, internal assessments of their chances on appeal ranged from giddily optimistic to vaguely doomed. They debated whether to haul the president before Judge Wright for sanctions. "We'll file a motion when we figure out how it gains Paula something," Holmes says. Says one partner, "We aren't being paid to drive the guy into the dirt."

In fact, they aren't being paid at all. The Rutherford Institute, a conservative think tank that is paying the expenses of Jones' appeal, has picked up more than $400,000 in travel and other costs, but attorneys fees are another matter. Partner David Pyke estimates that Rader, Campbell has more than $1.5 million of attorney time invested in the Jones case. The same week Starr sent his report to Congress, the firm offered to settle with Clinton for $1 million. There was no response.

Then the White House began sending smoke signals. On September 17, White House aides floated the notion that they expected the 8th Circuit to reinstate Jones' case. A week later, the White House sent over a $500,000 counteroffer.

After a year of the bloodiest sort of litigation, Jones' lawyers seemed puzzled by the White House's new attitude. "You know, why not go to oral argument [before the appeals court] and get a read on the judges?" Pyke wonders. "But they don't want to do that." With arguments set before the 8th Circuit in less than two weeks, time is growing short.

"The 8th Circuit seems to be rocketing this appeal forward," he says. 'I don't think it's unrealistic to expect an opinion before November. Why not wait for November? I guess they think it's going to be the wrong opinion."

But Clinton isn't the only one for whom danger lies ahead. The good news for Jones is that, in the wake of Starr's report, some 60 percent of the nation now believes her story. But there is bad news too. Even if the 8th Circuit reinstates her case and the Lewinsky affair is admitted as evidence, post-Starr report polling hints that Jones would still have significant obstacles to overcome.

For starters, she'll have to pick a jury.
"We did some jury research," said one Jones team member the day after Starr's report came out. "And what we found was that, for some black women, there was no set of facts under which Paula won.

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