Saga Unsettles Small-Town Life

Paula Jones doesn't live here anymore, but her case still hits home

To a visitor, the small town of Lonoke, Ark., may be remarkable only in its unremarkable similarity to the other small farming communities that dot the map here along old Highway 70.

Life for its 4,000 residents centers on rice farming, commercial goldfish raising, and other modest agrarian-related businesses.

But since 1994 Lonoke has been known less for tilling of the soil and more as the hometown of Paula Jones, the president's accuser in a sexual-harassment lawsuit.

Even though Ms. Jones now lives in California and her allegations stem from a time when she was a state employee in Little Rock, Ark., the town feels the strain with each twist in the notorious case. The latest, this week, are reports that cast doubt on state-trooper accounts of then-Gov. Bill Clinton's marital infidelities.

The Jones matter has turned lives upside down and tarnished Lonoke's reputation, residents complain.

"The [media] came here looking for dirt and didn't find any, so they made it up," says Mary Louise Nisbett, who teaches English at the high school this reporter attended until 1982.

Locals say Lonoke is, in fact, a backdrop for the sort of idyllic life not available in big cities. Limbs of massive oak trees create canopies over quiet streets and neatly trimmed lawns. Commuters are moving here from Little Rock 30 minutes to the west for the schools, minimal crime, and absence of traffic.

Yet people who have never been here have felt free to give a less charitable view of the place. Clinton defender James Carville suggested that "trailer trash" could be found here by dragging hundred-dollar bills through trailer parks. But no trailer- park communities exist in the town.

The single most-complained-about newspaper article, one that townsfolk here believe set the tone for subsequent negative coverage, was published by U.S. News & World Report after Jones filed her civil suit.

It set Jones's story in "a world that is both unpredictable and menacing." Lonoke was a "land of big hair and tight jeans and girls whose dreams soar no further than a stint at hairdressers school."

The sting of such accounts would perhaps be easier to soothe if residents - many of whom know Jones or Clinton personally - weren't themselves so divided about the case.

Take Pam Blackard. She is the first person Jones spoke to on the infamous night of May 8, 1991, after Jones allegedly came downstairs from meeting Mr. Clinton at a hotel in Little Rock. Ms. Blackard would be central to any successful Jones case.

Yet she has more concerns about denim than depositions these days: Her dry-cleaning business has been hurt by a quiet boycott. "I've had customers ask why I am standing up for Paula," she says.

A cousin and staunch defender of Jones, speaking on condition of anonymity, said she recently traveled to Washington to receive an award for her service to a national volunteer organization. She was congratulated by Clinton in the Oval Office. The woman failed to acknowledge her hometown of Lonoke or her relationship with Jones to the president and even to her co-workers. "I chose to bury it," she says.

Gwen Standridge, married to a cousin of Jones, says she's skeptical of Jones's suit. But she believes the negative media attention actually has had some positive effects locally. "The civic groups banded together and ... worked really hard on trying to correct any area of our downtown, or businesses" that needed fixing up, she says.

But even if there have been benefits, residents like Carolyn Bransford, who along with her husband has had close ties to Clinton since he was governor, are looking forward to resolution of the Jones suit.

As if on cue to help demonstrate Ms. Bransford's view of small-town life, Charles "Spanky" Gilliam walks up the driveway, stopping by for a visit. Bransford says her family has helped him since he was a boy, but she won't specify the kind of help. It's just the way people here "do for each other," she says.

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