Paula Jones and the Economy

A reporter must be cautious in measuring the political impact of this latest happening in the Paula Jones story - the Supreme Court's decision that the trial need not be delayed until after President Clinton leaves office. So, as is my custom, I've been listening to those best able to provide insights.

First, at a Monitor breakfast, the president's pollster, Mark Penn, furnished me with Mr. Clinton's perception of the damage he's sustained. He indicated that Clinton is unperturbed and that the episode was quickly moving out of public interest.

"On the second day," he said, "the story is off the front pages. It doesn't have legs."

"Why?" a reporter asked. Mr. Penn insisted the public is me-oriented, focused almost entirely on whether the president is "getting things done" for them.

"And every day," he went on, "Clinton is out there, getting things done."

"But wasn't the new Jones episode a possible threat to the presidency?" someone else asked.

"No," said Penn, "the only threat is if the economy should go bad."

"Even if it drags on?"

"No."

Obviously, we were listening to a Clinton loyalist. Yet he had credibility: After all, Penn was talking about a president who had weathered many storms relating to his personal conduct.

We all remember the Gennifer Flowers flap during the 1992 campaign that was supposed to knock Clinton out of the race - and didn't. There were other flaps - like those that centered on how Clinton avoided the draft and how he tried marijuana but didn't inhale. At first, each appeared to be terribly damaging, if not politically fatal, to Clinton. But they all passed. And Clinton survived.

Next I talked to a highly respected Democrat, someone who has been a key adviser in several administrations and a 30-year reliable source. He agreed to talk candidly - but not for attribution.

"I've known Clinton since he was a young fellow," he said. "I hired him to be part of the McGovern organization years ago. I wrote Bill before the 1996 campaign and advised him to pull out and not seek reelection - that he would be facing a lot of bad personal stuff - like this Jones thing - if he stayed on. He sent a letter back by messenger, saying he would give my advice 'serious thought.' But he obviously decided to take his chances."

He paused, then continued:

"The public is inured to sexual scandal. Clinton's lucky: He's never been nailed on a charge. But he has to get rid of this [the Paula Jones problem] in a hurry. His stalling tactics on other matters have been working. But no more. If this goes to trial it will be a daily soap opera. It will be embarrassing, humiliating. He must apologize, provide a response that will satisfy the other side. It will cause a storm of criticism. But it will be over in two or three weeks."

Here my source raised his voice and said: "This isn't Clinton's real danger. It's his campaign-financing problem. There's the possibility of obstruction of justice and perjury charges. And Hillary, too. I hear that [independent counsel Kenneth] Starr is planning to bring 15 of the 17 charges he brought against Susan McDougal against Hillary. That's why he wants those lawyer's notes from the White House."

My informant closed with this: "What's significant is that Clinton is losing his friends. No one will defend him on this Paula Jones thing."

I noted the next morning that the columnist most Democrats in Washington swear by - Mary McGrory - wrote of Clinton: "He has lived his life in a most improvident fashion, choosing company that he cannot defend or explain."

For me, the dust must settle a bit. I suspect that Clinton will somehow ride it through - that the real risk for him may well lie ahead.

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