Clinton’s Nixon

A massive pile of documents in the Paula Jones case was dumped yesterday in Little Rock, and the press scarcely noticed: Stories on page A14 of the New York Times, and A9 in the Washington Post; no story at all in the Wall Street Journal. From Chatterbox’s cursory review, the news judgment exercised by these institutions is sound. No significant news was decanted. But since when does the extent and depth of Flytrap coverage have anything to do with news judgment? The documents are amazingly salacious, arguably the trashiest yet to emerge. Chatterbox, whose stance towards Flytrap continues to be obsession alternating with revulsion, thinks this benchmark alone makes them worth a closer look.

Of particular prurient interest is the deposition of Lydia Ruthene Cathey, taken by Clinton’s attorneys. The Post, all-too-hastily, refers to this as “ribald testimony by Jones’s sister about the now-legendary ‘distinguishing characteristics’ of the presidential anatomy that she said Jones reported noting during the alleged 1991 encounter in a Little Rock hotel room.” Clinton attorney Bob Bennett, you may recall, denied publicly that any such “characteristic” exists, and the Clinton team’s questioning seemed aimed at undermining Ms. Cathey’s credibility. Chatterbox has no opinion, and, of course, no inside information, about whether the storied “characteristics” exist (though he does think Matt Drudge hasn’t suffered enough for reporting, preposterously, that it was a tattoo of a bald eagle in his crotch). Chatterbox remains dubious about Paula Jones’s whole story, though somewhat less dubious than he was a few months ago.

Still, Chatterbox is intrigued by a bit of legal jousting the Clinton attorneys engaged in over the word “penis.” [Note: Sharing this bit of Ozark ribaldry with Slate readers requires Chatterbox to steer around a synonym for “penis” that may not be suitable for a family website. Hint: It’s the familiar form of the first name of the 37th president of the United States.] Let’s go to page 165 of the deposition:

Q: Okay. Now, with respect to the allegations that you said that were repeated–that you repeated here today for the first time about the penis of Bill Clinton, in that conversation, did Paula tell you that there were distinguishing characteristics of the president’s penis?

A: Yes.

Q: Okay. Now were those the words of Paula that night, that the president’s penis had distinguishing characteristics?

A: No.

Q: Because–

A: It’s–she worded it as “his [Nixon] was crooked.”

Q: Okay. Now, in fact, in that entire conversation, she never talked about the governor’s penis? She never called it penis, did she?

A: No.

Q: The only word she ever used to refer to that particular portion of his anatomy was “his [Nixon]”; is that correct?

A: Yeah. But that’s what it is.

This is a genuinely puzzling exchange. Are Clinton’s lawyers seriously trying to argue that there’s some crucial distinction between a penis and a [Nixon]? In Chatterbox’s experience, there is none. True, a foolish person is sometimes denoted as a [Nixon], but from the context here it’s clear she’s saying a thing was crooked, not a person (e.g., “Clinton is crooked,” or dishonest). Another possibility is that Clinton’s lawyers are trying to convey that a person who refers to the male member as a [Nixon] is hopelessly crude and oughtn’t to be trusted. But Chatterbox, while refraining from using the term here, hardly considers it the most vulgar term available. Indeed, he has used it himself from time to time, occasionally in mixed company.

The mystery only deepens later when there’s similar warfare over the distinctions between the words awful and gross. We resume on page 167 of  Exhibits to Document No. 111 (you must have Acrobat installed to view these pages)

Q: Did she say anything about its size?

A: No. It was hard and crooked and gross. You know. That was the word she used.

Q: Did she say it was gross?

A: Awful.

Q: Is that what she said?

A: Yeah, Just it was awful. Gross. I mean, just–you know.

Q: Well, now let’s go back. Because Ms. [Clinton attorney Kathlyn] Graves–

A: Because of what I said earlier.

Q: Ms. Graves asked you at length what your sister told you about the president’s penis. And I don’t remember your saying that your sister told you that it was awful and gross. Are those your sister’s words?

A: Yeah. It was awful. Yeah.

Q: She said it was awful-looking?

A: Yeah.

Q: And gross-looking?

A: It was awful. It was just awful.

Q: Did she use the word “gross”?

A: Yeah. Just gross. Awful-looking….

Chatterbox admits there’s some comic richness here in the witness’s inability to grasp that “awful” and “gross” are two different words, albeit with identical meanings. But to this layperson, it looks mostly like legal browbeating. Chatterbox stands with Ms. Lydia Ruthene Cathey when she calls a penis a [Nixon] and asserts that “gross” is the same thing as “awful.” If for no other reason than to stop such undignified (if entertaining) cross-examinations, Chatterbox fervently hopes the Paula Jones lawsuit will go away….

–Timothy Noah