Until recently, Jeffrey Toobin was held in high esteem as one of the USA’s most prominent legal and political commentators. He had come to journalism with an impeccable pedigree: indeed, if anyone could be said to have epitomised the US media elite, it was him. His father had been a successful television news director, and his mother had been one of the first women war correspondents to broadcast from Vietnam. Toobin has enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a legal analyst for the New Yorker magazine, and has been a regular panellist for several years on CNN network shows. He is also the author of several works of non-fiction that have topped the New York Times bestseller charts.
One of his books explored the series of sex scandals that engulfed Bill Clinton in the closing years of his presidency and which led to his eventual impeachment. In the run-up to the 2020 election, it seemed highly likely that Donald Trump would also be impeached. Toobin’s book was reissued, and it soon made its way back onto the NYT bestseller lists. A film option was bought, and plans were made to adapt the book into a major TV series, with a stellar cast and with shooting scheduled to begin in April of 2020. A previous TV adaptation of one of Toobin’s books had scooped no less than nine prestigious Emmy awards.
I had read A Vast Conspiracy, Toobin’s book about Clinton’s sex scandals, when it was first released, and I thought it was well-informed and very well-written. However, reading it again on its reissue, I am struck by the questionable assumptions and prejudices that run like veins throughout the text. In particular, Toobin treats the sexual relationship that Clinton developed with Monica Lewinsky – a young and unpaid intern working in the White House – as if it were typical of those casual affairs that middle-aged men sometimes conduct with much younger women: foolish and reckless perhaps, but still relatively trivial.
Toobin did not seem to recognise that, as far as some men ‑ such as Bill Clinton ‑ are concerned, affairs with younger women often involve a grossly uneven balance of power, and can lead to an obvious abuse of male authority. Although Toobin is critical of Clinton’s behaviour, he is particularly condescending and disdainful in his comments about Monica Lewinsky: “Before she became obsessed with the president of the United States,” he observes at one point, “her only other serious interest in life was dieting.”
The latest edition of his book has not changed the original text, and, to his credit, Toobin acknowledges in a new introduction that he is now “less sure” about some of his earlier conclusions, but has decided to let the text stand as “a document of (its) era”. Perhaps, Toobin is being too modest – or self-indulgent ‑ in this regard: his book reveals a number of underlying prejudices that can still be found both inside and beyond the USA.
Around the time that the first edition of Toobin’s book appeared, I travelled to Little Rock, the state capital of Arkansas, to make a film about the background to Clinton’s impeachment. Our filming began in the Excelsior Hotel, which was located at the heart of Little Rock. The Excelsior no longer exists, but it was once the largest building in the city and dominated its skyline. The Arkansas river wound its way slowly past the hotel, and the Old State House was just next door. The Excelsior was also positioned at the centre of Little Rock’s social life, and it was where Bill and Hillary Clinton celebrated his election as the 42nd president of the United States on the night of November 4th, 1992.
The previous year, the Excelsior had witnessed a very different event, but one that would also acquire a landmark significance. That was when a young woman called Paula Jones was summoned to the hotel room of Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas. Later, she filed a legal suit against him claiming that, when she went to his room, she had been groped by him, propositioned for oral sex and he had exposed himself to her. A remarkable series of events followed that led to the first impeachment of a sitting US president in more than one hundred years.
I had travelled to the Excelsior, along with our presenter, Ruby Wax, and a film crew, to meet Paula Jones and make a film about her story for the BBC. Jones was born in Lonoke, a small town in rural Arkansas with a few thousand people whose principal occupations were growing rice and soybeans. Lonoke was originally called Brownstown, but it was burned to the ground during the American Civil War when Union armies invaded the Confederacy. In a sense, the town never fully recovered, though it was rebuilt in the years of Reconstruction.
The rebuilt town was supposed to be renamed Lone Oak after a large tree located at its centre. However, due to a spelling mistake, it became known as Lonoke. It is located about thirty miles from Little Rock, but in some respects remains a world away. Indeed, according to Toobin, Lonoke is such an economic and cultural wasteland that there would be “a moral obscenity” in focusing too much “biographical attention” on Jones’s life there. He believes that “until the moment that she took on Bill Clinton, that life was mostly sad (and) mostly ordinary”. Clearly, for Toobin, “ordinary” and “sad” have much the same meaning. He even suggests that Jones’s subsequent notoriety has provided her run-down hometown with “a kind of industry” ‑ and one which offers the glamour and excitement that has hitherto been lacking in the lives of its citizens.
In reality, Paula Jones’s family history may have been sad, but it was far from ordinary. Her father, Bobby Gene Corbin, was a preacher with the local Church of the Nazarene, a small evangelical Christian sect that was founded in the early years of the last century. Women played a key role in establishing this church in Arkansas, and its special mission was to spread the Gospel to the poor and underprivileged. That category included Paula’s own family, and her father was compelled to augment the meagre income he earned as a preacher by working in a local factory. It was a precarious existence and, when he fell ill and lost his factory job, the family hit rock bottom and he was declared bankrupt.
Despite his straitened financial circumstances, Corbin ensured that his family adhered to the strict moral precepts of the Nazarene Church. Paula and her two sisters were not allowed to cut their hair. They were not permitted to wear make-up, jeans or pants. All their dresses had to be lower than knee-length, and they never owned any that were “store-bought”. The family prayed together each evening, and the girls were taught to avoid all “worldly” pleasures, such as dancing and roller-skating. They were even forbidden to visit the houses of their school friends in case they might be tempted to watch television.
Paula Corbin was a young teenager when her father died while performing Gospel music at a senior citizens’ care home. No doubt this was a dreadful time for his daughters, but perhaps it also marked a kind of liberation. For the first time, Paula and her sisters could begin to indulge their personal tastes in clothes, music, dancing and boys without fear of their father’s wrath. When I met her on the first morning of our film shoot, she was wearing tight jeans and high-heeled boots.
Some have interpreted her fashion style as if it revealed something about her moral character ‑ rather than expressing a healthy young woman’s rejection of her father’s restrictive shibboleths and the adoption of dress codes that were common among her peers. Jeffrey Toobin refers to Paula’s curls being “stacked so high that her hair bow was barely visible” – as if that signalled some kind of delinquent tendency ‑ and he believes that she projected “painfully little sophistication” in her overall appearance.
The chapter of his book in which he introduces Jones to his readers is titled “Party Girl”, and Toobin quotes the claims of her estranged brother-in-law, Mark Brown, that “by the time she was seventeen, [Paula] had had sex with fifteen men”. He does not question how such claims could be regarded as reliable or try to explain why he considers them pertinent. There is, however, an underlying suggestion that, because of her previous sexual history, Paula had actively invited approaches from men like Clinton. That comes perilously close to the old misogynist trope: any woman who experiences sexual harassment or assault has only herself to blame since she has apparently been “asking for it”.
When I had checked into my room at the Excelsior Hotel, I found there was a message on my answering machine assuring me that the staff of the hotel “enthusiastically await the opportunity to exceed your expectations” and inviting me to enjoy their famous “Southern hospitality”. I was also informed that the hotel had a large exhibition and conference centre in its basement that I might care to visit. At that time, the centre was showcasing an extensive display of RVs (Recreational Vehicles): a form of transport and lifestyle that seems to hold particular appeal to what has been termed “bi-focal America”. But in May of 1991, the exhibition centre was hosting a “Quality Management” conference, where the keynote address was to be delivered by Bill Clinton, then state governor.
By 1991, Paula Corbin had left Lonoke and moved to Little Rock, where she met and married Steve Jones, an Elvis lookalike and wannabe actor. She had found employment in the state capital working as a junior clerk with the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission and was present at the Excelsior conference staffing one of the reception desks. She had only been working with the commission for two months, and this was apparently “a big day in her life”, (as her supervisor later told Clinton’s lawyers). Jones had dressed for the occasion: she was wearing white culottes and black hose, with a bright red bow in her hair. Perhaps it was the bow that first caught Clinton’s attention.
When Paula met us in the Excelsior on the first morning of our filming, she was accompanied by her media adviser and close confidante, Susan Carpenter-McMillan. Ruby and I had visited Carpenter-McMillan the previous day at her palatial home in an affluent suburb of Los Angeles. She was well-known for her champion Bichon Frise show dogs, and their framed portraits, dressed in a range of period costumes, hung on the walls of her mansion (the dogs lived elsewhere with their trainer). Carpenter-McMillan was stylishly dressed, exquisitely manicured, and was reputed to be fabulously wealthy. It soon became clear that she was also highly articulate, and was imbued with a very strong sense of personal mission. She claimed that working with victims was something she “had to do” because, she said, she was always “drawn to the underdog”. That was, she said, the constant and over-riding passion in her life.
By the time she came to work with Paula Jones, Carpenter-McMillan had already established herself as an activist on a range of conservative social issues. She had been prominent in the Californian pro-life movement and had staged an elaborate memorial service for the 16,000 foetuses that she claimed had been aborted in the state. She had also launched a “citizens’ petition” demanding the death penalty for OJ Simpson. And she had helped promote California’s state law that mandates chemical castration for second-time child molesters. According to Jeffrey Toobin, her “life story seemed like a petri dish of Californian eccentricity”. He considered her a woman with no shortage of “opinions” who was “skilful at expressing them”. But it was only when she became Paula Jones’s spokeswoman that Carpenter-McMillan was able to reach a national audience.
When we met Paula, she seemed excited to meet up with a foreign television crew and told us how much she was looking forward to filming with us over the next few days. We began with a visit to the hotel room in the Excelsior where she said her encounter with Bill Clinton had taken place. Paula said that she had been invited to his room by one of the state troopers who was in the governor’s security detail. She said that, soon after she entered his hotel room, Clinton “started making passes at me, and tried to kiss me on the neck”. Ruby asked why she hadn’t just turned on her heel and walked away: Paula said, “I guess I’m not made up like that.” She said that Clinton began groping her breasts: “He was saying that he liked my curves, then he started going at my legs.”
Jones said that Clinton had pulled down his pants “all the way to the floor”. Then he “sat slap down on that couch and began fondling himself. He asked me if I would kiss [his penis], and, when I looked, it was pointing that way.” She indicated the general direction, and said she told the governor that “I’m not that kind of girl, and I’m going to be going now”. According to Jones, Clinton said he didn’t want her to do anything she didn’t want to do: “He went so red in the face, and he looked so embarrassed.” She said he stopped her at the door on her way out, and said, “You’re a smart girl. Let’s keep this between ourselves.”
There was something naive and artless in the way that Jones spoke about her encounter with Clinton that made it seem credible to me. From what I had read in advance of our meeting, I imagined she was just some sort of opportunist and a gold-digger, but as she talked I found that at least some of my preconceptions about her began to fall away. I also found that almost everyone I spoke to in Little Rock believed that her version of what occurred was probably true. That consensus included some Clinton loyalists: one of them described the former president to me in affectionate ‑ if somewhat exasperated ‑ terms as “just an old horn dog”.
There are conflicting accounts of what Jones related about her encounter with Clinton soon after it had taken place. One of her co-workers confirmed that a state trooper had invited Paula to the governor’s room, and that she was “shaking” and upset when she returned. There were other testimonies that confirmed that reaction. However, a switchboard operator in Clinton’s office claimed that Paula had been “happy and excited” following her meeting with the governor. It is, of course, possible that she displayed both sets of reactions to different people at different times. Either way, it does not lessen the gross nature of the sexual proposition that she claims took place.
Jones took no immediate action after her visit to Clinton’s hotel room and did not make any formal complaint about the alleged incident. Indeed, that was where the matter rested for over two years. In 1992, Bill Clinton became the first elected US president to come from Arkansas. Then, in December of 1993, The American Spectator, a conservative magazine, published an article by David Brock. It was called “His Cheating Heart”, and its sub-title was “Living with the Clintons: Bill’s Arkansas bodyguards tell the story the press missed”.
In this article, some of the state troopers who had been assigned to guard Clinton when he was Arkansas’s governor claimed that they had helped him conduct numerous clandestine sexual liaisons. They had solicited women on his behalf, secured hotel rooms for him, and had often lied about his whereabouts to his wife. In the words of one journalist, the stories the troopers told depicted Clinton as “a terminal adolescent with a libido that was out of control”.
One of the troopers, later identified as Danny Ferguson, described an encounter that he alleged had taken place in Clinton’s hotel room at the Excelsior in 1991. Ferguson said that he had been attending a conference in the hotel as part of the governor’s security detail when he was sent by Clinton to invite a young female receptionist to his room. He named the woman as “Paula” and claimed that she had enjoyed “a consummated and satisfying sexual experience with Bill Clinton”. After the hook-up, he also claimed that she had offered to become Clinton’s regular ‑ but unofficial ‑ girlfriend.
Although the article did not provide the woman’s surname, Little Rock is a small city and it was fairly obvious to some of its citizens that the person in question was Paula Jones. She did not read The American Spectator –Jones has said she did not even know of its existence – but one of her friends drew her attention to the article. For understandable reasons, she was extremely upset by what she read. She asked for a retraction from the magazine ‑ which was refused. If The American Spectator had been prepared to apologise, Jones has said there would have been no subsequent legal suit.
Since no apology was forthcoming from the magazine, she hired a lawyer to seek a response from Clinton. She wanted him simply to confirm that, when she visited his hotel room, she did not engage in any improper sexual activities. She also asked that he should express regret that her reputation had been compromised. There was no initial response from the White House to her request. She has also claimed that, if Clinton had responded, there would have been no subsequent legal action.
According to Monica Lewinsky, who had a sexual relationship with Clinton when she was working as a White House intern – to which he (eventually) admitted ‑ the reason he was not prepared to meet Paula Jones’s request was because he thought it might set a precedent and lead to other women coming forward: it seems he feared there would be no shortage of potential complainants. If Lewinsky’s account is true, this turned out to be a serious error on Clinton’s part.
By then it was already too late for Jones to file a formal sexual harassment complaint under federal law. But she could still register a civil suit under Arkansas law, and, when Clinton failed to respond, that was just what she did. There was a last-minute attempt to broker a deal, but it collapsed and Jones filed suit for sexual harassment on May 6th, 1994, just two days before the statute of limitations would have run out on her legal right to take such action. On the same day, Clinton’s legal team, led by Jackie Bennett, gave a press briefing in which he dismissed Jones’s claim as “tabloid trash”. “If this were a serious lawsuit,” Bennett continued, “it would not read like it was made for TV.” Paula Jones’s motives in pursuing her case were summed up by Clinton’s lawyer as being driven by her desire for “publicity, talk shows (and) money”.
Jones and her advisers had been largely unsuccessful when they first tried to interest the media in her story. One of the few journalists who wanted to write about her was Michael Isikoff, a staff member of The Washington Post. He pursued the case with great tenacity, but he has recounted how his bosses at that paper regarded the alleged incident as distasteful and dismissed Jones’s case as “tawdry”. Isikoff resigned from the Post and moved to Newsweek, where he was able, at a later stage, to cover this story in full and comprehensive detail. However, a similar response to that of the Post seems to have been taken across much of the mainstream media. It would appear that the immediate instinct of most respectable (and somewhat self-regarding) papers like the Post was to treat accounts of the sexual harassment and assault of women by powerful men as stories that belonged properly and exclusively in the vulgar tabloid press.
Nonetheless, once Paula Jones had filed her law suit the case began to be taken more seriously and to generate headlines in the USA and across the world. By then, Jones had been introduced to Susan Carpenter-McMillan, who was soon able to establish herself as her principal spokesperson. Before long, Carpenter-McMillan had appeared on a range of leading TV network shows, including Meet the Press, Crossfire, Equal Time, Larry King Live, Today, the Geraldo Rivera Show, Burden of Proof, and Talkback Live.
This was something of a personal breakthrough for Carpenter-McMillan, and she has been described as hitting the TV screens like “a one-woman tornado”. Looking back at some of those interviews, it was easy for me to understand her appeal to television producers. Carpenter-McMillan was an intuitive performer who thrived on confrontation and could mix her vitriol with equally coarse humour in a constant stream of usable (and reusable) sound bites. “I do not respect a man,” she told one startled news anchor, “who dodges the draft, cheats on his wife and shows his wee-wee to a stranger.”
Soon after her story broke, Paula Jones was accused of being part of what Hillary Clinton had previously described as a “vast right-wing conspiracy”. It is true that Jones was associated with highly committed activists like Carpenter-McMillan, and no doubt there were others of a similar political persuasion standing in the shadows. However, as Paula pointed out on more than one occasion, they were the only people who had offered to help her. In the days I spent with her, I gained the distinct impression that she had zero interest in any political ideology: indeed, according to one of her former lawyers, she “doesn’t even know how to spell politics”. And Susan Carpenter-McMillan was clearly a one-woman band: according to Toobin, she was both the founder and sole member of the self-styled “Women’s Coalition” on whose behalf she purported to speak in public.
At an early stage, Paula Jones had sought support from the National Organisation for Women (NOW) for her case. However, she was rebuffed on the grounds that she had aligned herself with “disreputable right-wing organisations and individuals”. The NOW president believed that the case had become “so highly politically charged” as to make it an unsuitable means of advancing “important legal principles”. Her case was also rejected by the American Council of Civil Liberties, and she did not meet with a sympathetic response from the supporters of Anita Hill, the law professor who had accused the Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. They might have been expected to express some solidarity with Paula, since Hill’s charges against Thomas were, as Camille Paglia has pointed out, “far less grave” than Paula Jones’s against Clinton, and in some jurisdictions, including our own, his alleged behaviour would be treated as a criminal offence. It seems clear that the rejection of Jones by those who had previously supported Hill was the product of partisan politics and not of any high-minded principles.
Perhaps Jones simply did not conform closely enough – in either her appearance or demeanour ‑ to the desired and required image of female victimhood. In that context, it wasn’t surprising that she had come to rely heavily on her adviser – and not just for media briefings. Carpenter-McMillan also gave Paula fashion and beauty tips. She said she regarded her as her “kid sister” and, Toobin noted with some distaste, that she sometimes spoke to her in baby language. Carpenter-McMillan also helped raise funds for her legal fees; and her then husband, a successful personal injuries lawyer, acted as a negotiator with Clinton’s legal team.
According to one of Jones’s former lawyers, the two women were almost “joined at the hip”. Dick Morris, a key adviser to Clinton, believed Paula had become “a wholly-owned subsidiary of Carpenter-McMillan”. She described herself to me as “a feminist and a Catholic”, but I was surprised by the explicit nature of some of Carpenter-McMillan’s comments about Clinton, and the gleeful way in which she delivered her verdicts. She speculated that “the biggest thing on Clinton is his nose” and that his penis was so “teeny-weeny” she felt sure that the women who had sex with him “wouldn’t even know they’d been screwed”. I was further surprised when she asked me if it were true that all Irishmen were like her husband and had “low-hanging balls”.
Clinton’s initial reaction to Jones’s lawsuit was not only one of complete denial: he also sought to delay any related legal action until his presidential term had been completed. The basis of his lawyers’ argument was that, as the US president and leader of the world’s most powerful state, he had much more important matters to consider than the complaints of an obscure young woman from Lonoke, Arkansas. This was an argument that was also presented to Paula Jones by Ruby over the following days.
Just before we arrived in Little Rock, a tornado had hit the city’s outskirts, levelling many of the houses in its path. It seemed an obvious metaphor for the trouble that Paula had helped to create for the Clintons, so we went with her to film in one of the ruined neighbourhoods. Looking around the widespread devastation, Paula speculated about her own destiny. “There’s always a reason and a plan for everything,” she said, “I think I was picked out for a reason. God knows how many hairs are on your head and He’s got your whole life planned out for you. I don’t know God’s reason for what happened to me, but I guess we’re just not supposed to know.”
Ruby suggested that, in the greater scheme of things – international affairs, the American economy, the planet’s future ‑ what had happened to Paula in a room of the Excelsior Hotel in Little Rock didn’t amount to a whole hill of beans. That argument cuts to the heart of the recurring conflict that can emerge between the public and private lives of our political leaders. But Paula was adamant: “I think the impeachment is Clinton’s punishment from God – I really do. I don’t care if he gets a blow job from whoever he wants. But he needs to get it from someone he knows that wants to give it to him.” It was hard to disagree with the logic of that last statement.
While her legal case was proceeding, Jones became the focus of some highly critical commentary from a wide variety of sources. As Toobin has recorded, her estranged brother-in-law fed the press salacious stories about her alleged sexual promiscuity. But some of the attacks came from more credible sources. According to the late Christopher Hitchens, Clinton’s political allies and legal team made a systematic attempt to smear Jones as a “common and dirty” woman of low morals who could only have welcomed any sexual passes that she received from the Arkansas governor.
The Tonight Show is the longest-running entertainment show in US television history, and it remains one of the most popular. One comedy sketch performed on the show at that time is worth considering in some detail since it may indicate how Jones was often portrayed and ridiculed by the mainstream media. In this sketch, “Paula” is presented as living in a small and broken-down trailer. She comes outside to speak to Jay Leno, the show’s host, and sits down on a filthy sofa with empty beer cans littered on the ground around her.
The actor playing Paula is dressed like a down-market hooker – with a short mini-skirt, too much make-up and very big hair. A prosthetic nose makes the actor look grotesque, and rather like the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz. She explains to Jay Leno that her “new” cosmetic nose had just been repossessed because she failed to “keep up the payments”. “Paula” tells Leno that she has decided to follow the advice given by her plastic surgeon to set up a psychic hot line service so that the “no one will ever have to see my face”. “Paula” says that her only alternative source of employment was to seek a job at Hooters, the cheap fast-food franchise whose waitresses wear the skimpiest of clothing.
At this point, “Paula” is interrupted by an obese and unshaven man who emerges from the trailer, wearing a grubby wife-beater vest, who engages in a raucous shouting match with her. Leno assumes she is married to this man, but “Paula” tells him he is not her husband – at which the studio audience laugh knowingly. “Paula” then tells Leno that her last job was working as a mascot for Piggly Wiggly, a cut-price supermarket chain operating in the Southern states of the USA. Leno asks her if she were obliged to dress as a pig for the job of mascot, and she replies that she didn’t need to wear any costume. Once again, the audience laugh loudly at “Paula’s” failure to grasp the implications of what she has just said.
She tells Leno that her ambition in life is to own a “real” fur coat – one that’s “made of possum” – which earns another laugh from the audience. She also tells him that she knows how to read the future – “all except the big words” – and this is followed by a sequence of “testimonials” from the “clients” of her new psychic service. These feature a man who is dating a sheep, a toothless Hillbilly, and two women wrestling on the floor of the Jerry Springer Show. The sketch ends with the obese man emerging again from the trailer. He begins another shouting match about beer with “Paula” that ends in a scrappy fight between the two of them.
In less than five minutes, this comedy sketch associates Paula Jones with squalor, improvidence, sexual promiscuity, ignorance and illiteracy, drunkenness, domestic violence, vulgar tastes and physical ugliness. For me, it is not merely crude and crass but also drips with the venom of social snobbery and class hatred. Some of the racial slurs that were once used to stigmatise black men and women have rightly become unacceptable in liberal democratic societies. However, it seems that similar libels – concerning violent impulses, sexual incontinence and innate stupidity – can be applied without inhibition to some poor white men and women. I also found it jarring to watch Jay Leno, a multi-millionaire who boasts that he owns more than 150 cars – one of which is reckoned to be worth over $12 million ‑ using a network television show not only to demean and ridicule an impoverished young woman, but also to make her poverty and apparent lack of education the butt of his own cheap humour.
Among those who were quick to come to the aid of President Clinton as Paula Jones’s legal suit gathered momentum was Bob Guccione, the publisher of Penthouse, a soft porn magazine that had functioned for decades as a kind of poor relation to Playboy. I once encountered Guccione in the company of several of his “Penthouse Pets” and would not have regarded him as an arbiter of public morality. However, he was an enthusiastic supporter of Bill Clinton, and was prepared to use his magazine to back him to the hilt.
When she was still a teenager, Paula Jones had posed for some semi-nude photos for her then-boyfriend, Mike Turner. In 1998, Turner sold these photos without her knowledge or consent to Penthouse. Jones tried to stop their publication, but a federal judge ruled against her injunction. Turner also provided a handful of notes that Jones had written to him many years before. The mild eroticism of these letters – in one of them she tells her boyfriend that he is “great in bed” – seems to have shocked Toobin. At any rate, he believed that they are not “what one might expect from the horrified ingénue who recoiled in horror from Bill Clinton’s pass”. The inference is clearly that Paula was not genuinely offended by Clinton’s predatory behaviour – though for many people a man exposing his penis to a young woman he had only just met, and asking for oral sex, would not be regarded as an acceptable “pass” but as a prosecutable offence.
The photo spread that appeared in Penthouse was accompanied by an article entitled “The Devil in Paula Jones” ‑ a gratuitous reference to The Devil in Miss Jones, a notorious hard-core porn movie. In an accompanying editorial, Penthouse branded Jones as “a small-town vamp who has attempted one of history’s boldest and most vicious personal assaults on a sitting President”. Guccione even boasted that he had published the photos “very gleefully, knowing this would undermine any credibility” that Jones might claim. (Guccione’s personal credibility collapsed just a few years later when, following the failure of a grandiose scheme to build his own nuclear fusion plant, he was compelled to file for bankruptcy.)
Not all of Paula Jones’s critics worked on Guccione’s side of the street. Gloria Steinem provided another valuable source of support for Clinton. Steinem is widely considered as a leader of the “second wave” of US feminism, but, in an opinion piece entitled “Feminists and the Clinton Question”, she glossed over Paula Jones’s claims of sexual harassment. As far as Steinem was concerned, Clinton had only made “a clumsy sexual pass” at Paula in the Excelsior and had “then accepted rejection”. Steinem acknowledged that Clinton might have displayed a degree of “insensitivity” in his actions, but she came out strongly in favour of “keeping private sexual behaviour private”. In other words: “Nothing to see here, please move along” ‑ which was roughly the same advice that Jones said Clinton had given her after he had groped her and exposed himself in the Excelsior hotel room.
In one of our interviews with Paula, Ruby raised a similar point to Steinem’s. “If you were raped,” Ruby said, “I’d say, ‘let’s get the guillotine!’ But there was no harm done.” “But there was!” said Paula, “I didn’t ask him to pull his pants down. That is emotional harm.” Susan Carpenter-McMillan intervened, and asked Paula to explain that she had been brought up in a very religious family. “She’s like me,” Carpenter-McMillan told us, “and everything I do is based on my religious beliefs.”
Ruby suggested that many people believed that Paula had only taken legal action for the money she might be awarded. “It was never about money,” she replied. “I never wanted any of this attention.” All she wanted, she said, was a proper apology “on national TV so that everyone can see it”. If Clinton had only apologised when they were in the hotel room together, she said, “that would have been enough for me”. By now, Paula was visibly upset, and it was clear the interview had become painful for her. “It’s all about the way you were brought up,” Carpenter-McMillan said as Paula turned away distraught from our cameras.
James Carville had been Clinton’s chief campaign adviser and strategist when he was running for president in 1992. By then he had grown used to dealing with what became known to Clinton staffers as “bimbo eruptions”. These occurred when young women emerged from Clinton’s past and claimed to have had sexual flings or full-blown affairs with him. Carville assumed that these complaints came from women who were only looking to see if they could make a few bucks. “If you drag a $100 note through a trailer park,” he had said, “you never know what you’ll find.”
That contemptuous attitude was not confined to Carville. According to Michael Isikoff, it was “an article of faith” in the White House that “bimbos only come forward in exchange for money. Therefore they can’t be believed.” Over the years, Clinton’s defenders repeatedly characterised Paula Jones as just another two-bit hustler. Jackie Bennett, Clinton’s personal lawyer, compared her pursuit of the president to a dog chasing a car. The few dogs that manage to catch cars, he added, usually end up dead. Bennett later denied that he had intended using this metaphor to threaten Jones. Instead, he assured the press that he felt “sad” for her; James Carville made the same claim. Carville reckoned that there was “no Hollywood” waiting for Paula at the end of her court actions, and predicted that, “when they turn the lights off for her”, they would stay off for good. It seemed that Carville’s boss also had difficulty in taking Paula seriously. According to one of Clinton’s friends, he described her as a “floozy” and a “nobody” who only wanted “her hour in the sun”. His refusal to deal with her seemed to be vindicated when a federal judge determined that her case could not proceed until after Clinton’s presidency was over. The judge ruled that hearing the case before then would place an unreasonable burden on the president.
Jones appealed that ruling, and her case dragged on for a few more years, but, in May of 1997, the US Supreme Court unanimously rejected Clinton’s request to defer proceedings. In a landmark decision, the court ruled that the president could be sued for actions outside his official duties, and that those duties need not prevent him from providing a legal deposition. Jones was also required to be deposed under oath, and this took place in Little Rock in November of 1997.
Over two days, Jones was subjected to a ferocious and humiliating interrogation by Jackie Bennett, the Clintons’ personal lawyer. He began by establishing that she had been fired from five of the seven jobs she had held before joining the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission. A number of reasons were given for the various sackings – including persistent lateness and “talking too much”. This catalogue of dismissals certainly indicated that Paula had a poor employment record, but none of her alleged offences seemed very serious, and they were all quite irrelevant to the matter in hand.
Then Jackie Bennett began to question Jones about her sexual history. He asked her to describe in detail the appearance of President Clinton’s penis, and confirm if “the shaft were bent or crooked”. He insisted that she draw an image of how Clinton’s penis had looked when it was erect, and she was compelled to comply with his demand. He suggested that Paula seemed to have “a certain familiarity with the male anatomy” and asked if she had “ever taken any anatomy courses”. If not, he wondered aloud how she could have gained her comparative familiarity with the male sex organ.
Bennett asked Paula when and how she had lost her virginity; when she had first slept with her future husband; and if she had been pregnant at the time of her marriage. He named a number of men who claimed to have slept with her. He read from the notes she had written as a teenager to Mike Turner, including one in which she had referred to his “sexy body” and “wonderful butt”. He implied that she was a “bimbo” and asked her if she knew what that term meant. Jones replied “trailer park white trash”. That certainly seemed to sum up just how Bennett wanted her to be perceived.
It is difficult not to be repelled and disgusted by the brutal and prurient nature of Jackie Bennett’s questioning, and it would seem understandable if Jones had felt herself subjected to another type of assault upon her character. However, it would be a mistake to conclude that Bennett was wholly responsible for the line of attack that he followed. He was, at all times, acting in the interests of his client, Bill Clinton, and following the instructions he had been given. According to Toobin, the message he had received from both Bill and Hillary Clinton was unambiguous: Bennett was to do “whatever it takes” to destroy Paula’s credibility as a witness.
As it turned out, his ferocious cross-examination proved pointless because of the sequence of events that followed Bill Clinton’s own deposition. He had been asked, “under penalty of perjury”, to identify all state or federal employees with whom he had sexual relations between 1986 and 1996. His reply was “None”. Clinton was unaware that Monica Lewinsky had kept a dress that had been stained by his semen. His DNA on her dress proved that, by denying their relationship on oath, Clinton had perjured himself.
He later claimed in his defence that his understanding of what constituted sexual relations did not include oral sex. Clinton even quoted the Bible to justify that opinion. His explanation failed to impress or convince many, including the presiding judge, Susan Webber Wright. She concluded that Clinton had given “false, misleading and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process”. Clinton was eventually impeached by the House of Representatives in December 1998.
Ultimately, Paula Jones accepted a settlement of around $850,000 from Clinton, but this was not accompanied by an apology or any admission of his wrong-doing. More than 80 per cent of that money was swallowed up in her lawyers’ fees, and the final sum she received might seem like small compensation for the years that it had taken for her case to reach its resolution. Jeffrey Toobin reckoned that it was less than half of what Jones would have received if she had agreed to an earlier offer, and the final settlement had to be divided between Paula and her ex-husband.
Jones’s personal life had changed a great deal over the period in which she pursued legal action against Clinton. She had moved out of Arkansas and relocated to California, where her husband tried and failed to pursue a movie career, and where her marriage later broke down. She had some cosmetic surgery work done – as a result, she said, of her appearance being derided so often on TV, and because it was performed by a surgeon who provided his services for free. She also appeared on a few Reality TV shows, including Celebrity Boxing, where she lost her bout with the disgraced Olympic skater Tonya Harding.
She found it hard to find permanent employment, and she even agreed to be featured once again – this time, voluntarily – in the pages of Penthouse magazine. For some, this seemed further proof of her basic lack of principle ‑ or judgment for that matter. Jones explained that she and her two children were in desperate need of the money that Penthouse was prepared to offer, but for some of her former allies that did not seem a satisfactory explanation. Carpenter-McMillan expressed her dismay, and the conservative polemicist and ideologue Anne Coulter, who had been one of her staunchest supporters, now abandoned her. She claimed that Paula’s action in posing for Penthouse had shown she was “just the trailer trash they always said she was”.
While making our film with Paula, I was struck by how often and how easily she and those of a similar social background were characterised as “trash”. That term (as applied to human beings) had first been popularised in the 1850s during the years leading up to the US Civil War. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a publishing phenomenon that became the nineteenth century’s bestselling work of fiction. The book played a significant role in promoting the abolition of slavery among white liberals. There is no doubting the passionate conviction with which Stowe espoused the cause of abolitionism, but she also wrote that the “poor white trash” of the southern US states were “utterly ignorant and inconceivably brutal”, and suggested they were “like some blind savage monster, which, when aroused, tramples everything in its way”.
This prejudicial view seems to have lodged in some corner of the American psyche, and it surfaced in much of the coverage that Paula Jones received on television and in other media. People from her social background were contemptuously dismissed by Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election as “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic ‑ you name it”, and she consigned millions of them to her so-called “basket of deplorables”. Clinton’s obvious inability to control the visceral aversion she felt for such people may have been one of the factors that cost her the presidential election. Her opponent in that election took a rather different tack. In one episode of Trump’s hit TV series The Apprentice, a contestant made a passing and fairly innocuous reference to “white trash”. Trump immediately fired him from the show. At that time, some felt that he had overreacted. But his action is likely to have been approved by many of those watching – and remembered when it came time for them to cast their votes.
By the early 2000s, Paula Jones was back in Arkansas, had remarried and was working in real estate. It seemed that, just as James Carville had predicted, the media light that had shone briefly on her life had been snuffed out. But her long involvement with the Clintons was not yet over. In 2016, Hillary Clinton had emerged as the runaway favourite to win the US presidential election. Much of her campaign was based on her supposed appeal to women, and it seemed this was an historic opportunity for voters to elect her as the first female president of the USA. That ambition was captured in one of Clinton’s principal campaign slogans: “I’m with Her!” Clinton was thrilled with that catchphrase – the winner of a competition for election bumper stickers ‑ and was more than happy to claim it as her own.
But not everyone was so impressed: indeed, for some, this slogan came across as egocentric and condescending. Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s chief opponent in the Democrat primaries, refused to utter the words when he recorded his final TV endorsement of her presidential campaign: “It’s just so phony,” he told the producers. Donald Trump, Clinton’s rival in the presidential election, was able to expose the slogan’s intrinsic weakness simply by flipping it round and telling his supporters: “I’m with YOU!” Trump’s own lead slogan – “Make America Great Again” – was often mocked in the mainstream media, but it referred to the betterment of the country, and not to any one individual, whether male or female.
From the beginning, Hillary Clinton’s supporters had identified Trump’s personal history of evident misogyny as a potential winning card to be played in the Democrat campaign. Clinton was able to remind voters on many occasions that Trump had referred to women as “pigs”, “slobs” and “dogs”. Then, shortly before election day, an audio recording was leaked in which the Republican Party candidate could be heard boasting about grabbing women “by the pussy”. It seemed like a decisive blow to Trump’s presidential ambitions. A female journalist, writing in The Guardian, was confident that “the behaviour of Donald Trump has galvanised women to make sure he never gets near the White House”.
Trump needed some dramatic event or distraction to break Clinton’s momentum and regain the initiative. In some respects, this was a similar conundrum to those he had faced in thirteen seasons of The Apprentice TV show when some dramatic action was needed to re-engage the audience’s attention. In his hour of need, Trump turned to Paula Jones: someone he had described in 1998, with characteristic crudeness, as “physically unattractive” and a born “loser”. Paula was asked to join two other women who also claimed to have been the victims of Bill Clinton’s sexual aggression. All of these women believed that Hillary had been complicit in her husband’s depredations. Trump called a surprise press conference just a few hours before his second presidential debate with Hillary Clinton, and sat flanked on either side by these three women.
It was clear that the years had not dimmed Jones’s hostility to the Clintons. She responded angrily when one of the journalists present asked her if she believed that Donald Trump had the right to grab women in the way he had described on the leaked audio tape. “Why don’t you ask Bill Clinton that?” she replied, “Why don’t y’all ask Hillary that?” When the presidential debate took place later that evening, Trump ensured that Paula and the other women were sitting in the front row and were directly in Hillary Clinton’s eyeline. In the course of her election campaign, Clinton had declared that “every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed and supported”. That raised the obvious question of why she had chosen not to believe or support any of the three women who were sitting before her.
It would be quite unfair to hold Hillary Clinton – or any other woman ‑ responsible for the failings of their spouse. Nonetheless, there is now a very substantial body of evidence to indicate that Bill Clinton had consistently pursued young women in subordinate roles or vulnerable situations and exploited the obvious disparities between his status and theirs to secure physical intimacies with them. There is also compelling evidence to show that the Clintons’ political machine went to great lengths to smear the reputations and destroy the credibility of any woman who made allegations of sexual impropriety against the president.
The political career of Hillary Clinton has been inextricably linked to that of her husband. When he first ran for president, she boasted that she was not “some little woman standing by her man, like Tammy Wynette”. As it happens, I once spent an evening in Ms Wynette’s company, and she struck me as being very far removed from the “little woman” that Hillary Clinton imagined her to be. However, unlike Tammy Wynette – who divorced three of her husbands ‑ standing by her man is just what Hillary Clinton has done, even when there was overwhelming evidence that he had acted as a sexual predator over many years.
On our last night with Paula Jones in Little Rock, she took us to one of her favourite haunts. “BJs” was a lively night spot, where young Arkansans could spend an evening ‑ enjoying a few beers, listening to country music and gathering round giant plasma screens to watch the big game and savour the house speciality, “Bone-In Wings”. This was where Paula had met her future husband, and, for the first time since we had been in her company, she seemed fully at ease and relaxed.
I thought I could glimpse what her life might have been like if she had never caught Bill Clinton’s eye in the Excelsior. In retrospect, it all seemed so arbitrary: one brief encounter in a hotel room and a life gets switched down a path from which it is difficult, if not impossible, to escape. I wondered if she felt that the years of public attention and scrutiny had been worth the personal cost. When I raised this question with her, Paula was insistent that she would do the same again if she had the choice. Perhaps that was what she needed to believe.
In recent years, and, particularly, in the light of the “Me Too” disclosures, there has been some reassessment of the experience of those women who claim they suffered harassment or worse from well-connected and powerful men. It may now seem hard to credit the virulence with which some of Bill Clinton’s defenders – including some leading feminists – tried to undermine the credibility of the women who had made a series of allegations of sexual misconduct against him.
“These women,” wrote one female columnist for The Washington Post, have “crawled out from under stones”. Betty Friedan, the pioneering author of The Feminine Mystique, claimed that Paula had not been harmed by Clinton: “She wasn’t killed. She wasn’t harassed. She wasn’t fired”, and concluded “What’s the big deal?” An editorial in The New York Times was equally dismissive of what it termed Paula’s “bawling” and “squalling”: the role of victim was one, this editorial asserted, in which Paula had “cast herself”. Once again, the sense of social disdain is pervasive and seems to drip out of very word.
Paula Jones was ridiculed for her accent, her clothes, her sexuality ‑ even her poverty. Nowadays, such personalised attacks no longer seem so clever or amusing. There is a sense in which the tables have been turned: women like Paula and Monica Lewinsky have begun to be recognised as genuine victims – and men like Bill Clinton, who have abused their power and status, may now find it a little harder to escape public censure. Or so one hopes.
Paula Jones may have come from an impoverished family in one of the USA’s poorest states, but she may have contributed in her own way to such change. Her case has challenged our understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment, and in so doing it has, perhaps, helped to make workplaces somewhat safer for women. Paula may have caused one domino of male sexual entitlement to fall: one that might have helped bring down those dominoes that have followed ‑ and the many that are still to fall. However, Paula does not fit neatly into any ideological narrative, and, unlike Gloria Steinem, she is unlikely ever to become a feminist icon – or to receive effusive praise from the Duchess of Sussex.
Paula Jones resists easy categorisation. She professed to hold traditional Christian values and beliefs – but she posed for a soft porn magazine. She claimed to dislike press attention ‑ but she became, in Jeffrey Toobin’s words, an “accomplished public performer”. She helped to impeach one president whom she regarded as a sexual predator, but she also endorsed a candidate who had been recorded boasting of similar behaviour. Paula Jones came from a small and obscure town in rural Arkansas, but she still managed to pursue a sitting president all the way to the US Supreme Court – and, in a sense, she beat him at his own game.
Since the 2016 election, Paula Jones seems to have retreated once again into the obscurity that James Carville foresaw. At the time of the impeachment, Jeffrey Toobin believed that it was “one of history’s great understatements that the president should have settled the case (with Paula Jones) earlier”. But since then both of the Clintons seem to have weathered the storm. They are respected by many as elder politicians – though both are younger than the current president ‑ and they continue to bathe in the limelight.
In March of this year, Kamala Harris, the new vice-president of the United Sates, had a webcast discussion with former President Clinton. Its theme was “empowering women and girls”, and there was no hint of irony in that agenda. Vice-President Harris said she considered it a “true honour” to join Clinton for this virtual event. It was hosted by the Clinton Global Initiative, and, at one point in the webcast, Clinton advised young people to be prepared to “forgive themselves” for their past misdeeds and mistakes. Perhaps, he was thinking of events that occurred in the Excelsior Hotel in his home state of Arkansas thirty years ago. At any rate, he seems well-qualified to give lessons in self-forgiveness.
The career of Jeffrey Toobin has experienced a few bumps since he wrote A Vast Conspiracy. In fact, he has experienced his own share of sex-related scandals. In the opening decade of this century, he conducted a clandestine affair with the daughter of one of his media colleagues. When she became pregnant, Toobin tried to deny his paternity. Ultimately, he was compelled by DNA evidence and a family court order to stump up the child support he had attempted to avoid. However, his career – and reputation – received a more serious setback on October 15th of last year.
A few months after the successful reissue of A Vast Conspiracy, Toobin was taking part in a Zoom call, rehearsing a podcast for The New Yorker about the imminent US presidential election. At one point, he mistakenly believed that he had left the Zoom meeting. Toobin began to masturbate – adjusting the camera to capture his actions ‑ unaware that he could still be seen by other journalists taking part in the podcast. Within days, he had lost his job at The New Yorker. CNN explained his absence from the screen by claiming that he had “asked for some time off while dealing with a personal issue”. After an absence of eight months, he has recently resumed his previous role on the network and has apologised for his “moronic” behaviour. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Gerard Baker commented: “These days proliferating lapses in journalists’ judgment and standards are not simply forgiven by the editorial establishment. They are rewarded. As long as they are the right kind of error by the right kind of person.”
Meanwhile, the production of Impeachment, the TV series based on Toobin’s A Vast Conspiracy, has progressed. Despite the fits and starts caused by the Covid pandemic, it is due to hit our TV screens later this year. The series is part of the popular American Crime Story strand, and will star Edie Falco (a multiple Golden Globes winner) as Hillary Clinton, and Clive Owen (another multiple Golden Globes winner) as Bill Clinton. Paula Jones will be played by Annaleigh Ashford – a gifted character actor who tends to work in supporting parts and has seldom been called upon to play the lead role. Some might consider that to be appropriate casting.