The word "IF" is as potent as it is short. Perhaps that's why respected artists ranging from writer Rudyard Kipling to director Lindsay Anderson have named their most cherished works with that two-letter word.
Now, with just ten days before America votes in an election which will probably decide the direction of the Supreme Court for many years into this new century, that single syllable word came to mind last night as I watched Larry King interview Paula Jones - the woman whose lawsuit still casts an unspoken shadow over this election and the strategies of the two principal presidential candidates.
Put aside for now whether one thinks that she told the absolute truth about the alleged incident with Bill Clinton or whether it was a fabrication. The veracity of her tale is immaterial to this particular point. It is undeniable that the events that grew out of that lawsuit caused a massive trauma in the presidency of Bill Clinton - and substantially shaped the election strategies of George W. Bush and Al Gore.
If.... the Paula Jones lawsuit had not been pursued so vigorously or had been settled before its tentacles improbably linked it to an investigation of an obscure 1970's land deal - the entire impeachment would not have happened. Nothing in the Starr Report or subsequent Ray announcements have indicated anything remotely approaching that level of supposed perfidy. In fact quite the opposite. Reluctantly Starr and Ray have both conceded that there just wasn't evidence to bring any charges against Clinton on any of the other matters. There would probably have been ongoing assertions against Clinton by political opponents - but not the calamitous national wrenching that the Monica Lewinsky scandal brought.
If.... there had been no Lewinsky scandal, Al Gore would have been able to run for President without the need to artificially distance himself from the most compelling reason for voters to elect him - his prominent membership of the administration which has presided over the most successful economic expansion in American history. An ungainly and self-defeating distancing act which could lose him the Presidency.
But the Paula Jones lawsuit WAS pursued vigorously, and it WASN'T settled before Ken Starr managed to weave her claim into his 4-year pursuit of Bill Clinton. So what?
Only that in her appearance last night on the Larry King Show on CNN to promote her nude spread in December's Penthouse, Paula Jones said some things that were profoundly disturbing. Her statements included her first-ever admissions on several crucial points.
In response to a question about why she didn't accept the out-of-court settlement offered by Clinton's lawyers in 1997 she stated that she was told by advisers and attorneys that there was "not a settlement on the table." When asked if she would have accepted She responded "Absolutely. Through the whole thing, I wanted to settle. All the attorneys knew that."
King asked her whether there were attempts by her advisers (who were hardline conservatives such as Susan Carpenter-MacMillan and John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute) to control her.
"Well, I think some people tried to make up my mind and tried to push me to go this way or that direction, which maybe, in fact, that I didn't want to go that direction. But then I thought OK, well, maybe they're smarter than me because they're more educated than me, you know, they're attorneys, or they're this person or that person, and I thought, well, maybe they know what are they talking about. So, yes, I was pushed a little bit to make decisions that I did not want to make."
The central plank in Clinton's defense - vigorously denied by Jones' lawyers and advisers - was that the Paula Jones case (especially after the settlement was rejected) was being pursued primarily for political gain by people with intensely political motives.
Jones' words are unsettling food for thought.
And what has happened to all the wonderful new friends Paula Jones discovered she had in 1997-8? Well to her surprise and pain they all vanished the minute her lawsuit was settled. King asked if she felt she had been used.
"Yes, I feel that way, because there's... nobody's around me anymore. Nobody's surrounded Paula Jones anymore. All of a sudden, they were all around me, wanting to know how I'm doing, this or that, whatever. But since it's been gone, nobody cares anymore. They're the ones that were supposed to be my good... my good friends and people who really cared about me and what was going on in my daily life and everything, and that just doesn't happen anymore. So really, I do feel that way, because if they were my friends and true friends to be for the long haul and to be future friends, they would have stuck around with me."
King asked her if those people has used her as a means to "knock Clinton off his pedestal."
"I feel that a lot of people did use me for a venue to get out in public to voice their opinion of how they felt about Bill Clinton. Absolutely."
During interview after interview in the impeachment days, Paula Jones' "friends" and advisers insisted that they were acting out of their care for Paula Jones - and their concern for her rights as a woman. They vociferously denied that they were motivated by the political agenda ascribed to them by Clinton.
And now they're all gone. Deserted by her conservative supporters and financiers, divorced and trying to raise two kids - and facing attorney bills and past taxes, Jones recently reversed an earlier pledge and accepted money from Penthouse Magazine for a nude spread. This was too much for Ann Coulter, the micro-skirted conservative pundette:
"I totally believed she was the good Christian girl she made herself out to be. It turns out she's a fraud, at least to the extent of pretending to be an honorable and moral person. Now, she's just as gross as Monica."
The pain felt by Jones is palpable.
"Everybody, even including her, you know, they all wanted to rally around me during the time of the lawsuit. And all of a sudden, I didn't hear from anybody after the lawsuit had been settled or whatever to say: "Paula, how are you doing? Do you need some help or is anything going on in your life that we can help you out with? How's your day going?" Nobody bothered to do that whatsoever. I was on my own. It's almost like they were gone and lost and no longer wanting to be my friend or contact me or anything."
If... what Paula Jones says is true - then her lawsuit COULD have been settled for $700,000 in the fall of 1997. There would have been no excuse to drag Clinton's personal life into the Whitewater investigation.
If... what Paula Jones says is true - then her "friends" and advisers (who instantly abandoned her) WERE just using her for the unholy business of trying to unseat a president rather than out of care for her.
If... what Paula Jones says is true - then perhaps the nightmare that was impeachment was an induced trauma that could have been avoided.
And if there had been no impeachment - Al Gore and George Bush would be probably be fighting a very different election today. Al Gore would certainly not feel forced to distance himself from the administration he has served - nor from the Democrats' most popular campaigner.
One can't undo what was done. But these new revelations from Paula Jones do bring that powerful word to mind. If....