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Clinton celebrates: Jones case dismissal boosts president

Associated Press Published: April 2, 1998 12:00 AM

DAKAR, Senegal _ Chomping a cigar and tapping an African drum, President Clinton celebrated the dismissal of Paula Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit. Now, he says he's " looking forward to going home and continuing the very ambitious agenda we've got there."

His wife Hillary also was upbeat. "Both Bill and I have felt throughout this whole thing that it would turn out fine, either at a trial or more appropriately as the judge ruled, based on the fact there was no evidence to support these groundless claims," the first lady told American Urban Radio Network.

In his hotel room Wednesday night, Clinton played an African drum and then strummed a guitar brought by local merchants. There was a cigar in his mouth, apparently unlit. He was spied through the window by a Fox News cameraman.

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Talking with his lawyer, Clinton playfully asked if the news were an April Fool's joke.

Today, the president spoke briefly with reporters. "I think the judge's opinion speaks for itself," he said. "I'm immensely pleased by this trip. I'm very much looking forward to going home and continuing the very ambitious agenda we've got there."

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The first lady echoed his remarks. Saying Jones' claims were groundless, Mrs. Clinton said, "So for us, we've paid very little attention to it.

"Our job has been to do everything we could to make America a better place. ... We haven't let any of this other stuff divert us _ which is really one of the goals of the people behind all of it ... to try to divert the president's energy, discourage people. It hasn't worked. And it will never work because we know what the truth is and we know what we're trying to accomplish for our country and we just work on it every single day."

More than 4,000 miles away, Paula Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton had been thrown out by U.S. District Judge Susan

Webber Wright. The decision caught up with the president as he concluded a 12-day journey across Africa.

White House aides rushed to tell the president. And then spokesman Mike McCurry hurried to the press briefing room, joshing that he wanted to talk about Clinton's trip to Africa. In truth, Wright's decision lifted a huge legal embarrassment from Clinton's presidency.

"The president is pleased to receive the vindication he's been waiting a long time for," McCurry said.

"I think he believes that the court's ruling speaks more eloquently than he could on this matter," McCurry said. "The president was pleased to hear the news."

Clinton quickly shared the word with his wife.

"I think both of them were pleased to get the news and at the moment, both of them are doing some shopping," McCurry said.

Jesse Jackson, accompanying the president as his special envoy to Africa, said, the ruling means "he will land on his feet Friday morning" from his overseas journey. "April 1 is a big day for Bill Clinton."

The president did not speak with reporters.

"A decision of this magnitude has been long awaited," McCurry said. "The president is glad to get it."

Told to contact his attorney, Clinton called Robert Bennett in Washington.

"He asked if it was in fact an April Fools' joke that Mr. Bennett was playing on him. Assured that it was not, the president thanked Mr. Bennett for his fine work," McCurry said.

The ruling does not end Clinton's legal troubles. An appeal by Jones' lawyers is possible, and Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr still is investigating allegations that Clinton had an affair with a young intern, Monica Lewinsky, and then urged her to lie about it.

The Jones case "has been a fact of life, and no doubt other matters will remain a fact of life for him," McCurry said. "And he has done a very good job of staying very focused on the work that he believes the American people expect him to do."

McCurry declined to characterize Clinton as being surprised by the news. But he acknowledged that some of the president's aides were stunned.

Back in Washington, three White House interns struggled to field a flurry of calls to the press office while a skeleton staff of Clinton aides appeared stunned by the news. One aide described the ruling as a "complete but welcome surprise." This aide said Clinton lawyers had only dared to hope that Wright would dismiss part of the case _ not all of it.

White House spokesman Jim Kennedy admitted to being speechless. "Nothing could be more eloquent than the judge's ruling today," he said.

While the lawyers and White House advisers officially put on a nonchalant air for the news cameras, a giddy sigh of relief was audible. Answering the phone at Bennett's law offices, a woman explained that neither Bennett nor his secretary could come to the phone because "there's a little bit of celebrating going on right now."

An attorney for Kathleen Willey, who was forced to give Mrs. Jones' attorneys a deposition in the case, may have spoken for all the witnesses unwittingly drawn into the case. "I wish it had happened earlier," attorney Dan Gecker said of the judge's ruling.

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