complaint had only moments earlier slithered out of the fax machine. But the president had built his career around the idea of a perpetual campaign, and a key tenet of that philosophy was never to leave an attack unanswered. The first news cycle to report the filing of the case would certainly include his lawyer’s emphatic response.
“In a single term,” Bennett said, “this complaint is tabloid trash with a legal caption on it. If it was a serious lawsuit, it would not read like a made-for-TV lawsuit. The language in the lawsuit just underscores the fact that this is not about the serious subject of sex harassment or civil rights. Indeed, it cheapens and it trivializes those important areas of the law.… This suit is about publicity, it’s about talk shows, it’s about money [and] book contract profits.”
Bennett’s opening statement lasted just five minutes, but he hit all of the talking points that would constitute the president’s response to the case for the next four years: the “incident” did not take place; money and greed motivated Jones; the lawsuit was the work of the president’s personal and political enemies. And yet Bennett was a lawyer, and so he spoke with precision as well as passion in behalf of his client. And in the details of whatBennett said on the first day of the Paula Jones lawsuit, there were the first flickers of caution in his denials on behalf of the president. Shortly after Jones’s press conference in February, Mark Gearan, then the White House communications director, responded to Jones’s claim by saying, “It is not true. He does not recall meeting her. He was never alone in a hotel with her.”
At the May 6 press conference, one reporter asked Bennett, “Are you denying every particular in the lawsuit? Are you saying there was no approach by a state trooper, no meeting in a hotel room, no discussion between President Clinton and this woman?”
Bennett hedged—elegantly. Indeed, he used almost precisely the same words his client would employ four years later when he was asked about his relationship with another young woman, complete with the same disdainful reluctance to utter her name. “This president did not engage in any inappropriate or sexual conduct with this woman,” the lawyer said. So, Gearan notwithstanding, perhaps Clinton did meet Jones in a hotel room.
And then there was a question of legal strategy. Bennett proclaimed emphatically that the “incident” did not take place, and he implied that he welcomed the opportunity to take on the accusation in court. But reporters asked whether a trial might involve a deposition by the president. Was that what Clinton wanted?
Indeed not, said Bennett. “Let’s be practical and reasonable,” he said, “Do the American people really want the president of the United States of America to be spending his time with lawyers rather than solving the problems of the times? I mean, that’s just an absurd result in a democracy. And frankly, foreign countries laugh at us at the suggestion that somebody can spin a yarn and file a complaint, and be off to the races tying down the president of the United States.”
Within these first answers were the seeds of Bennett’s real strategy to win the case. In truth, the last thing Bennett—or Clinton—wanted was to challenge Paula Jones’s story on the merits in a courtroom. In May 1994, only one date mattered to the president, and that was two and a half years away. He wanted all fact-finding—depositions, discovery, any inquiry into this case in particular or his sex life in general—put off until after the 1996 election. As if the point needed any clarification, Clinton’s White House counsel at the time, an old Washington hand named Lloyd Cutler, took Bennett to brunch at the Four Seasons Hotel to deliver the message in person.
“The win is getting it beyond the election,” Cutler told him. “Nothing else matters.”
But because of the election, Clinton