The President, Paula Jones and the spinning Bob Bennett
By Arianna Huffington
May 29, 1997
Bob Bennett, the president's personal attorney, has so far billed the chief executive over a million dollars for his expertise in the case of Paula Jones vs. William Jefferson Clinton. Not since "Ishtar" has so much money been spent to so little effect. "Petitioner's principal submission," the Supreme Court ruling read, " ... cannot be sustained on the basis of precedent. ... The court is also unpersuaded by petitioner's historical evidence."
The court's unanimous decision rejecting the president's claim to "temporary immunity" was Bennett's most spectacular defeat yet.
But you wouldn't know it from listening to Bennett -- only from looking at him during his press conference on the roof of his law offices in downtown Washington. Struggling to be heard against the din of traffic and wind, he looked as if he might jump off. But he sounded on top of the world: "We are very pleased," he said, "with much of the opinion which asks the district court to show deference to the presidency." It was as if the lawyer for a man condemned to be hanged were declaring himself pleased that his client had his choice of rope.
Hey, they don't pay you a million bucks for knowing the law. They pay you for spinning. He admitted as much once: "It's never strictly law with me. ... Law and politics. Law and public relations." And when the law failed him this week, it was all public relations. "I don't think it is a setback," he spun, "but it is a long, drawn-out process." I wonder if this is a recycled line from the days when he was representing Rep. Dan Rostenkowski.
While his counsel was whistling in the wind in Washington, the president was in Paris, where former President Mitterrand had an official mistress and an illegitimate daughter without anyone batting an eyelid, let alone suing.
Well, vive la difference. Back in the New World, the president's chickens were coming home not just to roost but to have their necks wrung.
For the truth of how the White House really felt, you had to leave Bennett on top of his building and join CNN's Wolf Blitzer in Paris. He described the dismay among White House officials. "They are reacting very negatively," he said. "They are embarrassed, as this decision came just prior to the president's meeting with Boris Yeltsin."
At least the private state of the traveling White House corresponded with the reality of the Supreme Court decision. What Bennett in his high-paid PR flack mode called a "mixed ruling" was as unmixed as a unanimous ruling from America's highest court can be. It was a categorical affirmation of the right of every American -- even one as vilified as Jones -- to due process. And it was a no less categorical repudiation of any public official's -- even the president's -- right to claim immunity for private conduct.
The Supreme Court reiterated what Chief Justice Warren Burger had made clear in the Nixon vs. Fitzgerald case of 1982. Even as the court decided that Nixon was immune from litigation over his official acts, Burger stressed: "A president ... is not immune for acts outside official duties."
When the appeals court last year denied immunity to the president, Bennett airily dismissed it as "a split decision." So 2-1 was not good enough for the president's lawyer. Now it is 9-0. Will he ever be satisfied? All the defense is currently left with -- until, that is, we get to the merits of the case -- is the small matter of "distracting" the president.
This excuse is, of course, much more laughable now than when first aired during the campaign. As the Supreme Court noted rather sardonically: "Several presidents, including the petitioner, have given testimony without jeopardizing national security."
The justices could have added that the petitioner -- i.e. the president -- has successfully managed not only testifying in the McDougals' trial but masterminding many fund-raising blitzes involving the White House without -- at least as far as we know -- jeopardizing national security.
No doubt, Bennett has a briefcase full of legal stratagems for continued stonewalling. His most ridiculous so far was the assertion that the case should not proceed because of Clinton's status as commander in chief.
It is not for nothing that he has been compared both to Perry Mason and to Edward Bennett Williams. (Although, for the moment, he is better known around Washington as "the president's penis lawyer.")
Anyway, after years of phony excuses and delaying tactics, is it not in everybody's best interest to bring the case that Bennett has called "tabloid trash" to a swift conclusion? "I can win this case in 10 minutes," he bragged to Vanity Fair in 1994. "Well, all right," he corrected himself. "Twenty minutes."The Supreme Court has now cleared the way for him to prove his wager.
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