By Howard Kurtz
One White House official decried what he called "a Salem witch trials atmosphere," and a former official, Lanny J. Davis, called the GOP "close to McCarthyism." But House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) maintained, without offering evidence, that the story was unleashed by "the president's attack dogs," and the Republican leadership demanded an FBI investigation.
The high-decibel rhetoric reflected an unusual confluence of events -- Republican anger at the dredging up of sexual improprieties, the tense stakes of a possible impeachment inquiry and a White House that, in the wake of President Clinton's admitted lie about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, is automatically disbelieved by much of official Washington.
"Everyone can blame the White House because [the perception is that] the White House lies about everything, that our credibility is zero," said presidential spokesman Michael McCurry. "We'll never win this argument."
White House officials insist they had nothing to do with Wednesday's story in the online magazine Salon about Hyde's long-ago affair. A friend of the man whose ex-wife was involved with Hyde says he was the source, and two other journalists confirmed yesterday that the man tried to peddle the story to them without any administration involvement.
In a letter yesterday to FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.), DeLay and other House GOP leaders asked for an investigation into efforts to smear members of Congress, including Hyde. "Whether or not that specific story originated with the White House or its allies, clearly there is credible evidence that an organized campaign of slander and intimidation may exist," the letter said, offering no further examples.
An FBI spokesman said last night that the agency is reviewing the GOP request but has not launched a formal investigation.
A leading Republican critic of Clinton, former U.S. attorney Joseph E. diGenova, said yesterday: "Their denials are worthless at this point. There is a presumption they are responsible at this point. They've made no bones that their tactic is to destroy anyone who disagrees with them. The burden has now shifted to them to disprove the fact that they were responsible for this."
DeLay at first told reporters, "No, I don't have any evidence" tying the White House to the Hyde story. But moments later he questioned the timing, saying: "We have reason to believe that top aides that have access to the Oval Office have been orchestrating a conspiracy to intimidate members of Congress by using their past lives."
Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) blamed the Hyde story on White House assistant Sidney Blumenthal. "I think this is Sidney Blumenthal's MO," LaHood said. "Blumenthal is a sneak. He's out to destroy people's careers, and he ought to be fired." Asked what proof he had, LaHood cited the "process of elimination."
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart replied that LaHood "should forward to us any credible information he has. If he has no such information, he should keep his thoughts to himself. Otherwise he's engaging in rumor, innuendo and anonymous gossip."
Blumenthal said in a statement last night that he "was not the source or in any way involved with this story on Henry Hyde." He said that he did not "urge or encourage any reporter to investigate the private life of any member of Congress" and that when asked in the past by reporters about any rumors, he told them "this was wrong, they shouldn't publish it."
Erskine B. Bowles, Clinton's chief of staff, told Hyde in a letter yesterday that the White House wants to fire any alleged leaker and "is informing news organizations that it waives any right to journalistic confidentiality about the sources of such stories." Bowles then made a telephone call to Hyde to assure him he was serious.
Several GOP critics cited an ABC News report Wednesday night that two unnamed journalists say a senior White House official peddled to them a story that Hyde once had a girlfriend. It is possible, of course, that such whispers occurred separately from Salon's pursuit of the story.
Charges and countercharges about smears have long been a part of the political culture. In 1989, a top Republican National Committee official resigned under fire over a memo widely viewed as an attempt to link then-House Speaker Thomas S. Foley to homosexuality. In 1992, GOP strategists spread rumors about possible Soviet intelligence involvement in candidate Clinton's 1969 student trip to Moscow.
Soon after the Lewinsky matter erupted in January, White House aide-turned-ABC commentator George Stephanopoulos said that some around Clinton "are willing to take everybody down with him."
Detractors point to a White House history of attacking its accusers. James Carville, the president's friend, openly declared "war" on independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, and White House officials publicly released negative information about Kathleen Willey after the former White House volunteer accused Clinton of groping her.
In February, the White House denied using private detectives to investigate opponents, but later acknowledged that the president's lawyers had retained such detectives for gathering what was described as "public information."
In August, NBC's Geraldo Rivera said he "got a call from my source very close to President Clinton," who told him that Rep. Paul McHale (D-Pa.) had claimed military decorations he had never been awarded. The White House apologized for the false charge to McHale, the first Democratic lawmaker to urge Clinton to resign.
Earlier this month, White House officials denied charges by Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) that they had leaked word to Vanity Fair that he had fathered a son out of wedlock. The story broke in the Indianapolis Star and News without administration involvement.
In the Hyde episode, David Corn, Washington editor of the Nation, said that Salon's source -- a Florida retiree named Norm Sommer -- had called him with the story and that he had confirmed it. Corn said Sommer called Salon while Nation editors deliberated and finally decided against publishing the story. "It's frustrating to see Republicans going on about a White House smear campaign when you know for a fact it isn't true," Corn said.
James Warren, Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune, said he initially suspected a White House leak until he realized that Sommer had called him months ago with the same information.
Salon, a fierce critic of Starr, made no secret of its motivation, saying: "Aren't we fighting fire with fire, descending to the gutter tactics of those we deplore? Frankly, yes. But ugly times call for ugly tactics."
In an effort to tone down the warfare, the chairmen of the Democratic and Republican House campaign committees said yesterday they had agreed that neither would provide funding to candidates who launch purely personal attacks against their opponents. But Reps. John Linder (R-Ga.) and Martin Frost (D-Tex.) said that responding to attacks would be acceptable.
Staff writers Guy Gugliotta and Lloyd Grove contributed to this report.
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