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A surreal legal thriller

National | Jones case hero Whitehead has eclectic tastes

Issue: "Pilgrims' progress," Nov. 28, 1998

John Wayne Whitehead was raised on science-fiction and horror movies. When he was a kid, his mother would go to work and leave him at the theater, where he would watch the same movie over and over. But the Christian legal activist's scariest adventure came when he rescued the Paula Jones case last year.

Mr. Whitehead took a major role in the strange drama of Paula Jones's sexual harassment suit against President Clinton. His Rutherford Institute rang up a $400,000 bill on her behalf; how much his group will recover of the $850,000 settlement-reached, finally, last week-is unknown. (Her old lawyers already have an $800,000 lien against it for unpaid fees.)

By the time Mrs. Jones signed the no-apology settlement agreement, Mr. Whitehead and his Rutherford colleagues announced they would withdraw anyway after the next round of appeals. Mrs. Jones declared victory, but Rutherford's president issued only a mild statement saying that the deal ends "four long years of seeking justice for Paula." He wrote that the case raised important issues "such as the importance of protecting powerless women from workplace harassment and the role of the rule of law in our highest offices."

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Soon, Mr. Whitehead will seek the limelight again for a different reason-as a documentary filmmaker. He is preparing a book and a seven-part series, "Grasping for the Wind," about 20th-century history. This project, an outlet for a bohemian side you don't see in the courtroom, is intended to show how our rootless society searched for meaning in a host of cultural and social movements-from Darwinism to Beatlemania. So far, the brainchild is without a publisher or network.

But this is just one manifestation of Mr. Whitehead's cultural devotion. He still loves horror movies. He drinks in everything from Stephen King to Bob Dylan to Marshall McLuhan. Like the French, he adores Jerry Lewis. A few years ago he even started painting abstract act.

The Rutherford Institute also runs a small pop culture magazine called Gadfly. Edited by son Jayson, and reflecting Mr. Whitehead's unusual tastes, its covers have displayed a hall of fame of hipster warhorses from Jack Kerouac to U2 to James Dean. Mr. Whitehead says he wanted to create something nonbelievers would read. "It's a cultural magazine and will have a Christian viewpoint when it fits," he says. "When it doesn't, it won't."

It's a small wonder that Mr. Whitehead, who studied at the University of Arkansas School of Law when the president was a professor there, says the White House never could figure him out. "There ain't no vast right-wing conspiracy," he says in his Razorback drawl . "That's a joke. First, I'm not right-wing."

In fact, Whitehead's politics have been all over the spectrum. In college he was a radical Marxist who once interviewed Mr. Clinton for an underground newspaper. Then he converted to Christ in 1974 after reading The Late Great Planet Earth. He suspended his law practice in the mid-1970s to study with the Jesus Freaks at The Light and Power House in Westwood, Calif.

When Mr. Whitehead went back to court, he became a consultant to the Christian Legal Society on constitutional matters and started handling religious-freedom cases. He soon decided to do civil-liberties work full time and founded the Rutherford Institute in 1982. "We only had a couple hundred dollars," he recalls of the early days. "My wife and I did our first mailings from our rec room floor."

Mr. Whitehead's obscurity didn't last long. He was a prolific conservative Christian author during the 1980s, but since then he has muted his positions over the years and has begun to "grow" politically.

Today, Mr. Whitehead presents himself as a Renaissance man and apolitical Good Samaritan who helps people stripped of their civil liberties. He still loves Francis Schaeffer, but things have changed. The kinder, gentler Whitehead supports the big-government behemoth Americans with Disabilities Act and says that belief in the death penalty is not pro-life. He still says homosexuality is sin, but says he is being Christ-like by defending gay-rights cases.

Mr. Whitehead claims that many Christians who oppose gay rights are hateful, scaring away unbelievers, and also hypocritical when they support persecuted believers. "The sword points both ways," he contends.

Rutherford currently handles about 260 cases, mostly those that involve religious rights, but others that might surprise some of his conservative Christian donors. In one, Rutherford is helping a man who says his boss verbally assaulted and harassed him upon discovering he was a homosexual. In another, Rutherford is appealing the case of a 14-year-old boy barred from a karate class because he was HIV positive.

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