The news was a shocker. President Clinton, traveling in Africa, suspected a nasty April Fools' joke. But it was true: Clinton was a legal and political winner Wednesday in the dismissal of the sexual harassment case brought against him by Paula Corbin Jones four years ago. The ruling in Arkansas by federal Judge Susan Webber Wright was unequivocal: Even if every boorish and offensive thing that Jones' lawyers alleged about Clinton was true, the standard for sexual harassment in Arkansas was not met, primarily because it did not affect the plaintiff's Arkansas state job.
That said, it is a bittersweet victory for the president.
In the years that the Jones case has crawled through the courts, we've heard excruciating details about presidential anatomy and accusations about Clinton's private behavior. We've more lately come to know Monica S. Lewinsky, Linda R. Tripp and Kathleen E. Willey. And the investigation of independent counsel Kenneth Starr, which began with Whitewater, became hitched to that of Jones, focusing on sex and he-said, she-said scenarios instead of the suspicious Arkansas real estate deal. Without the Jones case, there would have been no allegations of perjury or subornation of perjury or obstruction of justice in Starr's Washington investigation of Lewinsky, Willey et al.
Through it all, Clinton stayed high in popularity polls, buoyed by a helium-filled economy. But with his artfully crafted and legalistic evasions regarding mounting accusations, he seemed coated in slime.
This newspaper argued from the start that Jones' civil suit should have been delayed until Clinton left office, though evidence could have been gathered and kept under seal. As the courts that allowed it to go forward failed to predict, the cost in distraction from the business of the nation was high.
Jones' attorneys have said they'll appeal Wednesday's decision, handed down in Little Rock. But they seemed to be talking about the case in the past tense. "It is a shame that, unless the ruling is reversed on appeal, there will now never be a determination of who was telling the truth and who was lying," the attorneys said in a statement.
It's not over for the White House, not while Starr's probe is alive. But inasmuch as Clinton's fate is governed by politics rather than the letter of the law, Starr's stock has plunged and Clinton's is on a bounce. Starr, saying the Jones dismissal "has no effect" on him, has vowed to continue. Pressure on him to wrap up his investigation, which has cost more than $30 million so far, will no doubt increase. And GOP enthusiasm for an impeachment proceeding, never high, may pale to invisibility.
Absent a bombshell from Starr's office, it is possible to envision a time when Social Security reform and other urgent issues might capture the attention of the nation and be at the top of the congressional agenda. When the debate over health care returns to the spotlight. When the details of the tobacco settlement become a matter of wide public discussion.
But Clinton cannot survive unscathed. The world's suspicions about his truthfulness in many things will dog his place in history.