Just Who's On Trial in the Julie Steele Case?

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ALEXANDRIA, Va.: Ken Starr's prosecutors mentioned Bill Clinton 37 times in their opening statements at the trial of Julie Hiatt Steele. Then alleged presidential gropee Kathleen Willey took the stand. "His hands were all over me," she said -- and who can't imagine that? -- but TIME Washington correspondent Viveca Novak doesn't see the President's fingerprints anywhere else in this case. "You're supposed to get the feeling that the President's on trial here," she says. "But Starr has really yet to give people a compelling reason why he's even trying this case." Can he nail Clinton, who denied the advance, on perjury? No witnesses. Can he nail the White House for leaning on Steele? Not as far as anyone can tell -- yet.

Within the narrower context of the trial, it's at least clear that somebody's lying. Steele says she didn't hear about the alleged grope until 1997, when Newsweek wanted her to corroborate Willey's story. Willey says she confided in Steele not only hours afterward, in November 1993, but repeatedly throughout the years following. Steele, Willey testified Wednesday, "wanted to be very much into this story" and "wanted to make money off of it." Novak says Willey's credibility has some big bruises -- she's even lied to the independent counsel -- but Starr's biggest hurdle isn't establishing that Steele is lying. It's establishing why anyone outside the jury box should care.