Newsreal: Is Paula Jones' story falling apart?

Her most powerful defender raises serious questions about the trustworthiness of her allegations.

Published June 25, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

stuart taylor, the Washington attorney and journalist whose November 1996 article in the American Lawyer pumped fresh blood into Paula Jones' charges of sexual harassment against President Clinton, is now doing the backstroke. Taylor, who has become a mainstream media celebrity since he defended Jones' allegations (and accused feminists of hypocrisy for not giving them the same credence as Anita Hill's), now says that new disclosures could seriously undermine Jones' charges that on May 8, 1991, then-Arkansas Gov. Clinton sexually harassed her in a Little Rock hotel room.

Most damaging, Taylor told Salon, are statements by Carol Phillips, a former receptionist in then-Gov. Clinton's office who was friendly with Jones. In an interview with Taylor for an article that appeared in Monday's Legal Times, Phillips said that the day after the alleged harassment incident, Jones "came by the governor's office," and, "in a happy and excited manner," volunteered the information that "she went up to meet the governor and they met in a room and they just talked." Phillips told Taylor that she concluded that their meeting had been "totally innocent." Taylor also quoted Phillips as saying that Jones had described Clinton during the meeting as "very gentle with her. I remember her saying, 'He is so sweet, he is such a gentle person.'" Against Jones' complaint that Clinton's alleged sexual advances left her "frightened and horrified" (Jones charges Clinton dropped his trousers and asked for oral sex), Taylor said Phillips' statements "make her case look less compelling ... If Jones has been lying about that, she may be lying about other things."

Further undermining Jones' case, Taylor says, is his disclosure in the Legal Times article that Daniel Traylor, Jones' original attorney, is resigning from the case. Taylor quoted the Little Rock lawyer as saying Jones never mentioned to him the "distinguishing characteristics" on Clinton's genitals that she later described to two other lawyers who joined her legal team. Traylor says he discovered that Jones also took money from a conservative Christian filmmaker, who videotaped Jones telling her story and then used it in a virulently anti-Clinton film that alleges White House Counsel Vince Foster was murdered.

Not surprisingly, these disclosures have caused quite a stir in Washington. The president's supporters say they represent the first cracks in the so-called scandals that have been plaguing President Clinton. Over the coming weeks, they predict, both the Paula Jones case and the Whitewater investigation will be unmasked for what they have always been -- carefully orchestrated smear campaigns against Clinton by the right. "As the Chinese say, there's going to be a change of sky," said one White House confidant.

Meanwhile, Anita Hill's supporters say Taylor's latest disclosures about the Paula Jones case prove that they weren't being hypocritical when they failed to endorse her complaints, but merely prudent. Some have suggested that Taylor owes them an apology.

But while Taylor admits the new disclosures may weaken Paula Jones' case, he insists it has not been crippled. And he is not about to admit that he was less than prudent in his original article. "When I wrote about the case last November, I asked the Clinton people repeatedly if there was anybody they knew who could discredit Paula Jones' story," Taylor said. "Their line was that Clinton had never met Paula Jones, that nothing happened and this was all completely made up. Had I talked to Carol Phillips then, she would have been a mixed witness. She would have said Jones told her nothing happened at the meeting, but in doing so, she would have confirmed that a meeting had indeed taken place. That was something the Clinton people didn't want to concede last fall. Now, largely because of my article [in the American Lawyer], that line of defense has fallen apart. They now say that a meeting might have taken place. And against this new background, Carol Phillips' statements are a strong piece of evidence for them that no sexual harassment occurred. I think that's the reason why I was able to find Carol Phillips now, and not back then."

Taylor continued: "I told the Clinton people, 'You should have told me about Phillips last year. I could have written a better informed piece.' But no, I don't have any regrets about the piece. I wrote it with the information I had then. Now I have more."

Taylor is equally unrepentant toward his feminist critics, many of whom feel his latest disclosures expose the vast differences in the Anita Hill and Paula Jones cases. Taylor, some insist, vindicates their reluctance to embrace Jones' sexual harassment complaint against Clinton as vigorously as they did that of Anita Hill against Clarence Thomas.

"I don't think so at all," he says. "Frankly, my purpose in comparing these two cases was to smoke out the hypocrites and their double standard. All the feminists immediately leaped on the Anita Hill bandwagon -- and to a large extent the establishment press did too -- ignoring all the evidence that undercut her, trumpeting all evidence that supported her, coming immediately to a preconceived conclusion that women don't lie about these things. And suddenly along comes a women who isn't their type, and she's making allegations that are much more serious. I mean, exposing yourself to someone who doesn't want you to and saying "Kiss it!" is a lot worse than talking dirty about movies. And suddenly, these feminists aren't interested. They rush to embrace every woman who makes this allegation against a politician they don't like, but if it's a women making an allegation against a liberal politician, they don't want to hear about it."

Privately. some feminist leaders here concede there was a certain amount of hypocrisy in the movement's response to Paula Jones. But they point out that Taylor ignores the high political stakes involved after Jones' allegations first surfaced in mid-1994. In the long run-up to the 1996 election, women's groups viewed Clinton as sympathetic to their cause, while the Republican candidate, Bob Dole, was not. "This is politics," said one feminist leader, who asked not to be named. "You do what you have to do, even when it's not so pretty."

Last fall, just after Taylor's original article appeared, another feminist leader received an indignant telephone call from a prominent Washington newspaper columnist who proceeded to launch into a tirade about the double standard over the Paula Jones case. The feminist leader cut her short.

"What would you say if I insisted you write a column about how your editor-in-chief has been shtupping his wife's best friend? You haven't done it, and you won't do it. Sometimes we all must sacrifice our principles."

The women's movement recouped somewhat last month when Clinton's lawyer, Bob Bennett, threatened to dredge up details of Jones' sexual past if she persisted in pressing her case against the president. Feminist leaders unanimously cried foul, forcing Bennett to drop that strategy. It remains to be seen whether further disclosures in the Paula Jones and Whitewater cases will exonerate President Clinton, as his supporters predict. Sexual harassment cases rarely produce black-and-white truths, and this one is probably no exception. As for Taylor, it might be wise for him to take some of his own advice. Writing in Newsweek earlier this month, just after the Supreme Court decided Jones' case against Clinton could go forward, Taylor criticized "the knee-jerk first reactions that we all bring to the culture and gender wars." Then Taylor quoted Felix Frankfurter, who was once asked whether a Supreme Court justice ever changes his mind. "If he's any good, he does," Taylor quoted Frankfurt as replying. "The rest of us, too."
June 25, 1997

Hong Kong Diary



last night Hong Kong was looking brighter, far brighter than usual. The tiny territory can always be seen from afar when you are flying in, whether you are droning across the blackness of China or the blackness of the western Pacific -- it appears as a brilliant orange glow on the horizon a couple of hundred miles ahead, an illuminated statement of its own success. But last night its brightness seemed to have been compounded a hundred-fold: As the plane turned and banked into its familiar-yet-always-alarming landing turn at Kai Tak airport, it positively sparkled and glistened, with a superabundance of light. It looked almost as though the place was on fire.

It is all to do with the handover, of course, now less than a week away. It turns out that every office building worth its patriotic salt, and every blank wall without a cigarette hoarding, has now been festooned with decorative trails of neon that have been shaped into the chosen emblems of what, come next Tuesday, will be Chinese sovereign territory once again.

But the unintended symbolism of it all has caused some puzzled amusement. The two devices that have been chosen to depict the glorious moment of the handover are a five-petaled flower known as Blake's bauhinia and an overly cheerful looking sea creature known as a Chinese white dolphin. Biologists have pointed out -- and hence the amusement -- that the particular bauhinia is actually a rare hybrid, and one that is rare for the simple reason that it is terminally sterile; and the white dolphin is of a species that is currently being killed at such a ferocious rate by Chinese fishermen that it will be extinct in five years.

Why the new regime has chosen its symbols so maladroitly is anyone's guess. But it is giving the departing Britons opportunities for sardonic commentary on how they expect the territory to flourish -- or not -- once the Communists get their hands on it. A sterile weed and a dying fish, they chortle, with fine inaccuracy: What can that possibly mean?

The royal yacht, the Britannia, is now lying in the harbor, waiting to take the best and brightest of those Britons away, just after midnight strikes at the end of next Monday. She came in yesterday, and there was not a dry eye among those who saw her. She is such a lovely craft -- her rake perfect, her midnight-blue hull impeccable, her sailors all at attention in their tropical whites -- and she came in behind scores of fireboats spraying cannonades of foam.

Prince Charles flies in on Saturday to preside over the Monday ceremonial; some unkind sorts say that Camilla, his consort, is already secreted away in Britannia's bilges, and will be on hand to comfort him once the handover is done, and he and the colonial governor sail away for the Philippines and a few days of tropical rest.

There are other important ships around too. HMS
Chatham, an anti-submarine destroyer bristling with missiles and guns, has fetched up to provide a floating headquarters for the British forces during their last week in command. And another big supply ship, the Sir Percivale, is busily loading all the ammunition that the British kept in the colony's rocky bunkers until the very end, just in case. Both vessels will be sailing out, beyond the territorial boundary line, by the time the Chinese midnight sounds. There will be just a few British soldiers left on the Tuesday morning, tidying up, switching off the lights, rolling up the bunting. They have been given formal permission to stay until 3:30 a.m. -- without their guns, though -- because of the press of work, but once their jet has roared off into the night, the British colonial presence will formally, and absolutely, be over.

The Chinese army is already here, in small numbers. There are about 100 soldiers, all unarmed and in civilian clothes. But at 9 on the evening before the handover 500 more will be coming across the frontier -- a major concession by the outgoing British that was announced yesterday. And they will be in uniforms, and they will have their weapons. It will be a chilling moment, something to cause a shiver in anyone with any recollections of the Tiananmen Square tragedy of eight years ago.

The contrast of all the sounds to be heard that night seems to carry a symbolism all of its own: the tramp of boots and the rumble of heavy armor coming in, the soft sigh of the boats and the whispering roar of the planes going out. The tough men and the tough times are coming, the sounds seem to say; the gentler days are now over.

The lights that we see today, and the curious flower and dolphin patterns they have been made into, may have an amusing symbolic meaning. But the sounds that we will surely hear a week from now seem to speak of an altogether graver affair. People may not be laughing so much one week from now, sardonically or otherwise.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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