THE REACTION TO NEWS that Bill Clinton's lawyers had just received a check for $ 891,000 from an insurance company to pay the president's defense bills in the sexual harassment suit brought against him by Paula Corbin Jones was entirely typical. It was party time on talk radioshosts and callers whooping it up about the studly ne'er-do-well and his "bimbo insurance." In the establishment press, meanwhile, the story was something of a yawn within 24 hours of the Wall Street Journal's breaking it, as if million-dollar payouts (the tab is still running) to sitting presidents weren't worth a second thought.

In the era of Clintonian exceptionalism, this was yet another first. The first president to claim he is temporarily immune from civil suits for personal conduct; the first president to set up a legal defense fund; the first president whose wife is hauled off to the grand jury; and now, the first president collecting on umbrella coverage for personal liability.

The Clintons have had this coverage going back at least to 1988 -- contrary to misinformation suggesting he took out sexual harassment insurance in February 1991 with an eye toward putting the moves on Paula Jones in a hotel room that May. Initially, the policy was with the Chubb Group; the Clintons switched to State Farm in 1992, but the coverage was continuous.

This sort of insurance is not unusual, but neither is it well known. It mainly serves as a supplement to homeowner's and auto insurance, but it also provides protection against all kinds of civil suits involving allegations of personal injury -- such as Paula Jones's. The Clintons' policy is for $ 1 million -- which is just the limit on the damages the company will pay as a result of a trial or settlement. These policies also oblige the insurance company to defend you if someone sues you. The $ 891,000 Clinton received was for defense costs. And considering that this case hasn't even reached depositions yet -- as the president's super-lawyer, Robert Bennett, presses his novel legal claims up the food chain to the Supreme Court, if need be -- the insurance company is on the hook (and the president is off the hook) for a lot more.

All for about $ 120 a year in premiums.

If this sounds like a pretty good deal to you, you're not alone. In fact, I barely got Bob Bennett talking on the phone before he asked ifI had an umbrella liability policy, because I really ought to. "I recommend that people get them, and a lot of people do," he says.

Well, he would. He does command $ 475 an hour, and the Chubb Group's payout means he'll be getting his money far faster than he had any reason to expect. But this raises an interesting question.

Suppose you're not the president of the United States -- just, say, a nobody writer. Suppose somebody resurrects some best-forgotten incident involving a hotel room many years ago (albeit without state troopers). Suppose you don't remember it and anyway it never happened -- that's your story and you're sticking to it. If you've got this policy, does that mean you get to hire Bennett and deploy the full resources of his firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, and Flom, to defend yourself?.

Don't count on it. In fact, as with everything ClintonJan, this story has complications. And unsurprisingly, they involve dusty files, memory lapses, and sudden, almost providential discoveries.

The Clintons, it seems, forgot all about the existence of this policy. It was only discovered after a complete review of all the First Couple's old, expired insurance policies undertaken by an insurance-man associate from the good old days. So while Jones filed suit in May 1994, it wasn't until April 28, 1995, that Bennett wrote the company seeking payment on the claim. By this time, the million-dollar defense was, of course, well underway.

Bennett won't release copies of the Clinton policies. The standard State Farm policy, however, includes a provision telling the insured to "notify . . . us right away" or else coverage "may not" be provided. Hence the potential importance of the Clintons' claim to be unaware of the policy's existence. " The insurance company had no choice but to honor their duty to defend -- whether it was Joe Blow or the president of the United States," says Bennett. But there is defense, and then there's superdefense. If you happen to notify your insurer up front, chances are good your insurer is going to try to lay down the law on what kind and cost of defense it will provide you. Bennett, in effect, presented the company with a fait accompli. He and his team had long been working on the case. If the insurance company tried to deny the claim or yank the legal team in favor of something less extravagant, the company would incur the wrath of the president of the United States and, worse perhaps, of his lawyer.

Imagine you're the insurance company. What do you do? You pay, obviously.

As one State Farm agent notes, disputes about the "duty to defend" are commonplace: "Somebody with the right attorney might be able to win that argument. Somebody without the right attorney might not."

Bennett says the insurance company took a hard line on the president's claim. Ultimately, it turned down about $ 150,000 of the bill, arguing that the duty to defend doesn't include talking to the press, among other things Bennett bills Clinton for. Bennett says: "Because of the high-profile nature of the insured, all the i's were dotted and t's were crossed."

No doubt. But when you sit down to work things out with the insurance company, it's good (as Mel Brooks put it) to be the king -- and to have the president as your client.

by Tod Lindberg

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