Suing the president: Ten years later, John Whitehead looks back at Jones v. Clinton
On a winter day ten years ago, as he was leaving his Charlottesville home to run weekend errands, John Whitehead suspected something was amiss.
"There were these guys in skinny ties and white shirts in a black van, looking me right in the eye," he says.
It had been three months since Whitehead had agreed to take the case of Paula Jones, an Arkansas woman who was suing President Bill Clinton for sexual harassment, and in that time the world's media had been watching Whitehead and his office at the Rutherford Institute, his Charlottesville-based civil liberties law organization. But now he realized a more clandestine adversary was following his every move. The following Monday, he hired a former National Security Agency surveillance expert to inspect his office and confirm what he had already guessed.
"The whole office was bugged," says Whitehead. "I told him about the van, and he told me that if I saw them, they wanted me to see them and that it was meant to intimidate me."
"I just thought, 'How stupid,'" says Whitehead, who claims he remained unfazed.
His resolve was tested time and again over the following months– particularly when his motives were questioned– but Whitehead remained defiant on behalf of his client, even if his opponent was the President of the United States. And such an attitude seemed entirely appropriate for a man whose father loved Westerns about hard-bitten men fighting for justice so much that he named his son John Wayne Whitehead.
The most important person in the world
This was not the first time Whitehead had crossed paths with his legal foe.
In 1974, nearly two decades before he was sworn in as our nation's 42nd president, 28-year-old Bill Clinton was grooming himself for greatness, moving from the small town of Hope, Arkansas to receive his bachelor's degree from Georgetown and enter Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.
Clinton had just received his law degree at Yale and was fresh from the trenches of South Dakota Senator George McGovern's presidential campaign when he arrived in Fayetteville to become an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas Law School. He was already contemplating a run for Congress.
That's when The Grapevine, an underground campus newspaper, sent a long-haired 28-year-old law student to interview Clinton. The student's name was John Wayne Whitehead.
"I was suspicious of him because I was a young radical, and he was a politician," recalls Whitehead, "but we met in a bar and had a beer or two. I thought he was a little goofy with that laugh of his, but a nice, congenial, guy."
Clinton already had a reputation as a ladies' man.
"Working at the newspaper, I'd heard rumors that he'd been sleeping with students while he was engaged," says Whitehead, "but there was a lot of that going on, and besides, I thought 'Who cares?'"
Whitehead had taken a decidedly different path to that point. Like Clinton, he had been born in a small southern town in the summer of 1946, but, unlike Clinton, he had no political ambition. By the time he bellied up to the bar with the would-be congressional candidate, Whitehead had bounced around from undergraduate study at the University of Arkansas to the Army to becoming a full-fledged, pot-smoking, acid-dropping hippie lawyer-in-training.
According to Whitehead, the relatively straight-laced Clinton immediately took notice and began to ingratiate himself with his interviewer.
"He told me, 'You know, I think they should legalize heroin,'" says Whitehead. "I thought, 'He can't possibly mean that.' I knew he had looked at my long hair and my Army jacket and thought I was the sort of person who would support that idea."
Still, for all his skepticism, Whitehead was not immune to the trademark Clinton charm.
"He has a way of looking at you and making you feel like you're the most important person in the world," Whitehead says. "We talked about the different periods of Bob Dylan, about McGovern. And it worked. I probably went too soft on him."
In particular, Whitehead was so taken with Clinton over the course of their meetings at the bar and in Clinton's house that he was willing to do a favor before the article's publication.
"He called me up and asked me to take out the heroin comment, so I did," Whitehead says. "I sometimes think about what a political killer that would have been if I had left it in. It probably would have haunted him the rest of his career."
Nevertheless, when The Grapevine published Whitehead's article on February 13, 1974, there was one haunting quote. With President Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal pointing toward his resignation later that year, Whitehead had asked Clinton what constitutes an impeachable offense.
"I think that the definition should include any criminal acts, plus a willful failure of the President to fulfill his duty to uphold and execute the laws of the United States," Clinton said before adding, "The third factor that I think constitutes an impeachable offense would be willful, reckless behavior in office."
'A small blurb'
Clinton ended up losing his congressional bid, and Whitehead went on to found what began as one of America's leading law clinics dedicated to supporting religious freedom.
Having launched the Rutherford Institute in 1982, Whitehead made a name for himself by accepting freedom of religion cases– pro bono. He took the case of Native Americans wanting to pray with feathers from endangered birds to a high-schooler suing for the right to mention Jesus in a valedictory speech.
In 1993, Whitehead even tried to reach David Koresh while the messianic leader was holed up during his fatal last stand at the Branch Davidian cult compound in Waco, Texas. In the middle of the stand-off with federal agents, Whitehead wanted to tell Koresh that he would be willing to sue the government on his behalf.
But by 1997, the Rutherford Institute had begun to change. No longer confining himself to freedom of religion cases, Whitehead was refocusing the Institute on civil rights issues. In one case of an HIV-positive youngster dismissed from a martial arts class, Whitehead sued to have him readmitted.
Whitehead says during those years he had not been closely following the travails of his former Arkansas interview subject, but much of America had.
Paula Jones was a low-level state employee when she was infuriated by a 1993 article about "Troopergate," Clinton's penchant for using Arkansas state troopers to facilitate his trysts. Described erroneously in The American Spectator as one of Clinton's conquests, she decided the following year to clear her name by suing Clinton for sexual harassment. In May 1997, despite Clinton's petition for a delay, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the lawsuit could move forward.
A short article in the Washington Post on September 9, 1997 caught Whitehead's eye.
"It was just a small blurb saying that Paula Jones' attorneys had dropped her case," Whitehead recalls from his office just off Hydraulic Road. "At that point, the case was dead, so I came into the office and told my paralegal, 'See if you can find her.'"
When Whitehead finally got Jones on the phone, she related her story: while working at a Little Rock conference in 1991, she was led to a hotel room by an Arkansas trooper where she was cornered by then-Governor Clinton who exposed himself and then reminded Jones of his connection to her boss. Whitehead needed only one reason to get involved.
"I took her case because I believed her," he says.
Into the fire
Soon after that conversation, Whitehead met Jones in person in Little Rock. "She was this backwoodsy Arkansas housewife, but she shot from the hip," Whitehead recalls, "and she was smart."
Not everyone was so friendly. A story in the Washington Post Style section talked of "another eruption" of "Mt. Bimbo." Later, after an old boyfriend sold photos to Penthouse magazine, journalist Andy Rooney blasted Jones as "the most unattractive woman ever to voluntarily take off her clothes in front of a camera."
And then there was James Carville, a Clinton advisor with an attack-dog reputation, who dismissed Jones' lawsuit by saying, "Drag $100 bills through trailer parks, there's no telling what you'll find."
Having had experience dealing with the media, Whitehead knew his first job was to rehabilitate his client's image.
"The White House spin machine," he says, "was on TV every night saying she was trailer trash. I knew she wasn't, and I knew that we had to be on TV every day to say so. She was nervous about going on TV, but I told her that all she had to do was tell the truth, because she had nothing to hide."
For Whitehead, that meant taking every possible media request for comment.
"I really don't like going on these fuss-fuss shows," he explains, "but if you're on Chris Matthews every day, it makes a difference."
Sometimes he couldn't persuade his client that any press was good press.
"Vanity Fair was all ready to do a positive puff piece that was going to be good PR for Paula. The magazine had even bought me a nice tailored suit for the photo shoot. But I couldn't convince her husband, Steve," says Whitehead. "I did get to keep the suit, though."
And just as Jones struggled to cope with all the attention, so did her counsel.
"It was constant bombardment," says Whitehead. "Reporters from all over the world would call me at all hours. I remember at 4am one morning doing a remote broadcast from the Charlottesville airport for the Today show and Matt Lauer saying, 'I feel sorry for you.' But you've got to stay aggressive."
And the attention wasn't just from the media.
"We got audited by the IRS," says Whitehead, "but we were financially clean. You have to be," he says, "to do what we do. The agent actually apologized for being sent."
Due to the high-profile nature of the case and the small size of the Rutherford Institute's staff, it fell to paralegal Ron Rissler to field and follow up on the scores of calls offering potentially corroborating evidence. Each week, the office received tips about other women from all over the world.
"Some tips were more credible than others," says Rissler, now working for a law firm in Charles Town, West Virginia, "and some people just wanted to yell at us."
Rissler says he felt that he was getting close to the truth on several occasions, but he always came up just short.
"We heard from everyone from a friend of a pilot on Air Force One, to a guy from the power company who had done work at Camp David, to a woman who worked for Clinton when he was lieutenant governor of Arkansas," he says. "They all had stories about Clinton and these women."
One call, however, stood out. Sitting at his desk at the Institute, then located on Rio Road, in early October 1997, Rissler answered the phone to hear a soft-spoken, nervous, yet deliberate woman on the other end of the line.
"I'm hearing," said the voice, "that President Clinton had an affair with a young woman in her early 20s, with long dark hair. Named Monica."
The tipster refused to give Rissler her name or a phone number where she could be reached, but she said she would try to learn more. Rissler took the news to Whitehead, who was encouraged but skeptical.
"We used to get all kinds of crazy stuff," says Whitehead, "but this woman asked if we had obtained a list of White House employees. Still, Monica is a pretty common name."
A few weeks later, the nameless woman called the Institute again with a second key bit of information.
"Lewinsky," said the anonymous caller. "Monica Lewinsky."
"My adrenaline started pumping," says Rissler.
The caller said that, despite his advisors' protests, Clinton continued to bring Lewinsky back into the White House, even after her transfer to the Pentagon.
"She said," says Rissler, "that he had her snuck into the White House theater for a private screening of the movie Air Force One, just the two of them. His inner circle was extremely upset with him."
Clinton was also, apparently, leaving a paper trail.
"She asked if we had subpoenaed the White House's phone records," says Rissler. "She'd heard that he had made several phone calls to her from the Oval Office between 1 and 4am."
This was the break in the case Whitehead knew he needed for the Jones case. Someone who could corroborate improper contact with office underlings.
"Once we had the last name, we knew we had something," Whitehead says. "Soon we put a private investigator on it, and we found her."
Lewinsky was rumored to be living in New York, but soon Whitehead learned she was still in Washington, living in the Watergate, the office/condo complex made famous in 1972 when Richard Nixon's henchmen broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters there.
By the end of 1997, Clinton and his high-power legal team knew– since her name had been on the witness list for five weeks– that Lewinsky had been discovered by Whitehead and company. Rutherford Institute affiliate attorney Jim Fisher of Dallas had the honor of taking the infamous deposition that would nearly cost Clinton his job.
On January 17, 1998, Fisher asked the President under oath, "Did you have an extramarital sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky?"
"No," Clinton replied.
"I think I used the term 'sexual affair,'" replied Fisher, "and so the record is completely clear: have you ever had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, as that term is defined in Deposition Exhibit One, as modified by the Court?"
Responded Clinton, "I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. I've never had an affair with her."
Clinton had a long history of carefully worded denials. They included understatements like his famous post-Super Bowl, pre-election 60 Minutes comment, "I have acknowledged causing pain in my marriage"– referring to an alleged 12-year-affair with singer Gennifer Flowers, about which he said, "That allegation is false."
Then there were outright dismissals from his lawyers. One of them, Bruce Lindsay, had said of Troopergate: "The allegations are ridiculous." Clinton attorney Robert Bennett blasted Jones' tale: "This event, plain and simple, didn't happen."
Yet, on this January day, Clinton finally recanted his 60 Minutes claims. He said he had indeed had extramarital relations with Flowers– but only once, back in 1977.
Before the proceedings were over, Clinton managed to get in a shot at Whitehead.
"You all," he said to Fisher, "with the help of the Rutherford Institute, were going to call up every woman I'd ever talked to."
The next day, Matt Drudge reported on his "Drudge Report" website that Newsweek had found the former intern, too, and it wasn't long before the whole world knew the name Monica Lewinsky.
Five days after Clinton's deposition, Whitehead was awakened at 6am by a call from Donovan Campbell, Jones' Dallas-based co-counsel, with the news that they had a chance to depose Monica Lewinsky in Washington the next day.
It didn't take long for word to reach the D.C. media, and the next day as Campbell and Whitehead awaited Lewinsky's arrival, Whitehead was reminded that this case was unlike any other he'd ever had.
"We were on the third story of this building," recalls Whitehead, "and we look out the window to see a crane with a camera looking in. As I closed the curtains, I thought, 'This is strange.'"
But Lewinsky never showed, as federal judge Susan Webber Wright (a University of Arkansas Law School classmate of Whitehead's) granted a motion by special prosecutor Kenneth Starr and ruled that all Lewinsky matters were off-limits for the Jones case. With Lewinsky now the dominion of Congress and the Jones suit denied its star witness, Wright dismissed Jones' suit in April.
Two months later, Whitehead picked up Vanity Fair to find a smiling Monica Lewinsky running across a beach. Today, recalling the sight, Whitehead sighs, "That could have been Paula."
Later that year, while preparing an appeal, Whitehead's team accused Clinton of having "distinguishing characteristics."
"It was important; it proved that she saw his drawers drop," says Whitehead. "I was in that deposition where she drew his leaning tower of penis. The look on [Robert] Bennett's face was great. It blew his mind. It proved she saw something that she couldn't make up."
The unconventional tactic pushed the President to offer Jones $850,000 to drop her appeal. Jones, who had dumped her pre-Rutherford attorneys for not securing an apology, figured at this point that Clinton's credibility was so compromised that she no longer needed an apology. Whitehead, as usual, wanted to fight on.
"If we had pressed on, more women would have come forward," Whitehead says, "and we would have either gotten a sitting President on the stand, or she would have gotten more money."
Press accounts list various women not named Hillary who shared bed sheets with Bill Clinton, including television star Elizabeth Ward Gracen and various women in and around Arkansas whose dalliances with the governor were facilitated by state troopers. There was even a Charlottesville connection.
It came in the form of a September 1989 phone call from Clinton's room at the Boar's Head Inn. According to an L.A. Times investigation, while visiting Charlottesville for a national Education Summit that drew 49 of America's 50 governors, Clinton placed a 94-minute phone call from his hotel room to a woman in Arkansas beginning at 1:23am. He called her again the next day and talked for 18 minutes beginning at 7:45am. Clinton, without comment, later reimbursed the state of Arkansas $40.65 for phone calls.
But in November 1997, Whitehead's team hit upon much darker stories, stories quite different from tales of consensual contact. The legal team reached a Richmond woman named Kathleen Willey, who had told friends that Clinton had groped her in the Oval Office.
Unlike Jones, Willey couldn't be accused of overly friendly relations with right-wingers. A longtime Democratic fundraiser, she had refused to participate in the Jones case, instead wearing disguises and rolling up her car windows to avoid being served with a subpoena. But later she was willing to tell her story to Starr.
Another name that made its way to Rutherford headquarters was that of Arkansas retirement home operator Juanita Broaddrick. She'd told close friends that Bill Clinton had bitten her lip and raped her many years earlier at a conference. But, brushing aside the unwanted attention, Broaddrick responded to the Institute's subpoena with an affidavit denying knowledge of anything improper regarding Clinton.
Starr later subpoenaed such records, and Broaddrick came forward to say that she lied when she denied. In early 1999, NBC and the Wall Street Journal reported the allegations. But by then the story had fizzled– the statute of limitations had run out– and the Senate, just one month earlier, had voted not guilty on impeachment charges.
Writing in Their Lives, a 2005 book about the women "targeted by the Clinton machine," author Candace Jackson claims that Clinton's public support for women's issues– and his pro-choice stance on abortion, in particular– helped blunt much criticism that might otherwise have been expected from feminist leaders. As Clinton's ousted political advisor Dick Morris said later on the Fox News show Hannity & Colmes, "If you're going to be a sexual predator, be pro-choice."
Looking back, Whitehead says that the testimony of Lewinsky, Willey, or Broaddrick could have tipped the balance in his client's favor.
"Any one of them could have corroborated what Paula was saying," says Whitehead, "that President Clinton had a problem with women. Ken Starr basically took over our case and took all the witnesses, and there was nothing we could do about it."
Aftermath: Ten years gone
Eight days after his 1998 deposition in the Jones case, Clinton went on the airwaves and declared to the American people, "I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."
The deposition would have staggering repercussions for Bill Clinton. Starr began investigating tales of cigars, secret-code neckties, and an unwashed blue Gap dress that conclusively showed that Clinton lied.
In August 1998, Clinton took the airwaves again and admitted a relationship with Lewinsky that was "not appropriate." But by then the damage was done.
His lies under oath caused the President to be charged by Judge Webber with contempt, hit with a $90,000 penalty, and eventually disbarred by both Arkansas and the U.S. Supreme Court. To this day, he no longer has a license to practice law.
Legal scholar Alan Dershowitz later blasted Robert Bennett's decision to allow his client to give a deposition on his sex life as the "#1 legal blunder of the 20th Century." Dershowitz said that Clinton should have simply "submitted" to the case, paid the $750,000 Jones originally sought, and told the American people– who had elected him twice– that the nation's business was too important to bog down in an old civil suit. Had that happened, Starr might never have brought Lewinsky into his investigation.
To critics, Clinton was not just a philanderer but a possible sex addict whose persistent trysts– and possibly worse– caused immeasurable harm to the women, to his family, and to the nation. And to others, Clinton's sexual conduct never should have been investigated.
"Did you elect him to get fellatio from an intern in the Oval Office at 10am?" asks Whitehead today of those critics. "That's on the taxpayers' nickel. Are you paying him to do that?"
Although it put him and the Rutherford Institute on the national map, a decade later, Whitehead doesn't think of Jones v. Clinton as a highlight of his career.
"I don't look back on it with a lot of fondness," he says. "Don Campbell's firm split over the case. It destroyed Paula's marriage. I don't associate a lot of good feelings with it."
Neither does Bill Clinton. In his 2004 autobiography, My Life, he blasts the Rutherford Institute as "another right-wing legal foundation funded by my opponents.
"Now," Clinton writes, "there was no longer even a pretense that Paula Jones was the real plaintiff in the case that bore her name."
That was his version of what his wife, Hillary, had said to Today host Matt Lauer less than two weeks after the infamous deposition: "The great story here," said the First Lady, "is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for President."
"Propaganda, all is phony," says Whitehead today, quoting Bob Dylan. "What political opponents could they be talking about? The guy in Kansas who gives us $17? No big foundations or corporations give any money to us because we're too damn controversial. We don't hold fundraising dinners; we sue people.
"We still haven't recovered, financially, from the Jones suit," he continues. "We lost $100,000 that first year, and it cost us $400,000 altogether. We had to make cuts in staff; we're still renting our office space. We found out firsthand that it's not a popular thing with donors to sue a President."
While he doesn't regret taking the case, Whitehead says he resents that the suit was used as the basis of an impeachment trial.
"I don't think that lying about having sex counts as 'high crimes and misdemeanors,'" he says.
In spite of the harm it did to their boss, Whitehead says he's actually friends now with some of his former White House foes.
"I've gotten to know John Podesta [Clinton's chief of staff], and I can understand how they would go to the mat for this guy," says Whitehead. "They really believed in him. Podesta still gets nervous talking to me, because he remembers when I was the devil."
To this day, both Whitehead and Rissler say they have no idea who the anonymous Lewinsky tipster was. They don't believe it was Linda Tripp, even though she was the one who blew the whistle on the Kathleen Willey incident and who wore a wire to send her friend Monica into the arms of prosecutors.
"The tipster definitely would have to have overheard something from the inner circle or been close to a member of the inner circle," says Rissler. "Either way, she was no dummy."
As for Jones, she remarried and now– as Paula McFadden– is a real estate agent in Little Rock. She briefly spoke with the Hook last week, but declined to comment.
In addition to the 10-year anniversary of the scandal, Lewinsky's and Jones' names have been on the lips of politicos everywhere considering that Clinton could return to the White House as the husband of presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton. According to UVA professor and political pundit Larry Sabato, those scandals will only come up more frequently as she continues her quest to take her husband's old seat in the Oval Office.
"The subject is almost certain to arise in the fall campaign," says Sabato. "Rather than re-hash the Monica Lewinsky affair or the other Clinton women, the issue will probably be framed for the future. Republicans will ask, one way or another, ‘Does the public want the Clinton soap opera to continue for another four or eight years?'"
What does Whitehead think of the prospect of the Clintons returning to the White House?
He says that while he thinks Mrs. Clinton would be better than President George W. Bush, he worries whether her husband has gotten the psychological care Whitehead believes he needs.
"He has a problem with sex," says Whitehead. "What all of these women have in common is that they came across his radar screen, and that he sees any smile, any glance, as a come-on. I don't know if he's gotten that help, but if he hasn't, it could get Hillary Clinton into trouble. You're not going to be able to pay everyone off."
Whitehead concedes that he never did report the alleged bugging of his office to law enforcement. He says he wouldn't have known who to call. One thing he's sure of is that he intends to keep on sticking up for the little guys and gals to protect their civil liberties– no matter who's listening.
He laughs, "They've probably still got my phones tapped."
John Whitehead speaks with reporters on January 27, 1998 in Washington, D.C., ten days after President Clinton had given his deposition in his client Paula Jones' lawsuit.
The Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute received an anonymous tip pointing them to Monica Lewinsky just before Thanksgiving 1997.
Paula Jones, now re-married and known as Paula McFadden, settled her lawsuit against President Clinton for $850,000 on November 13, 1998.
President Clinton at his January 17, 1998 deposition in the Jones lawsuit.