In Lewinsky Matter, Views Shift Rapidly
By Dan Balz
When former White House volunteer Kathleen E. Willey appeared on CBS's "60 Minutes" last Sunday, accusing President Clinton of making an unwanted sexual advance in the Oval Office suite and then lying under oath about it, there was a flood of instant analysis about the significance of her appearance. The bottom line: a presidency, once again, imperiled.
The White House was immediately roused to crisis mode, and the atmosphere in Washington recalled the first days after the Lewinsky story broke in late January. There was a sense of a dramatic moment that could crystallize the case against the president and change the political climate almost overnight.
By week's end a different reality had overtaken Washington: A more complex portrait of Willey had emerged, and the episode settled back into the larger mosaic that is independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's ongoing investigation. Just what Willey's testimony added up to, beyond a classic case of he-said-she-said, remained for Starr's attorneys to sort out.
In that way, Willey's week was the whole Lewinsky story in microcosm: from what it said about Clinton's behavior to the difficulties facing the independent counsel to the political ramifications on Capitol Hill to the public's view of a controversy that continues to grip official Washington.
There is now a pattern that has become predictable, as the controversy enters its ninth week. When allegations first appear, they are stark and clear, often menacing to the president. The more that is known, the more time passes, the less clear their meaning. And the more disinterested the public becomes -- which is the essence of the White House strategy and the core of Starr's problem.
This pattern is the reverse of Watergate, where the more pieces that were added to the puzzle, the more damning was the case against then-President Richard M. Nixon. What began as a burglary grew to a constitutional crime and an open-and-shut case of obstruction of justice.
What has changed least in the Lewinsky matter is public opinion. In the face of Willey's nationally televised appearance, Clinton's job approval ratings remained at near-record highs. That vastly complicates the situation for Republicans in Congress, who may have the ultimate responsibility of determining whether Starr's investigation adds up to a case against the president. Those lofty job approval ratings obscure the toll the controversy is taking on the president, the parties and the country. They also have enlarged the gulf that already existed between Washington and the rest of the country.
"I've never seen a situation where a president has this sort of popularity in the rest of the country and cannot even find, privately, a defender in Washington, unless they're related to him, employed by him or supplicant to him," said Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess. "I've never felt that we lived in two separate worlds more than this."
Evolving Feminist View
Last Wednesday, a Democratic strategist said of Willey, "I really thought this time it would make a difference, that when people saw her it would make a difference. . . . I thought, 'this is bad,' finally there was something that was going to be a big problem."
Many in the White House also feared the worst from Willey's appearance on television. Not that her story was new. The details of what she said happened between her and the president have been around for months, first published in a Newsweek article, and repeated often in the past two months. Two days before her appearance on "60 Minutes," lawyers for Paula Jones released Willey's deposition in which she detailed her account.
But on Sunday night, almost 29 million Americans watched her, and the next day, feminists who had continued to defend Clinton in the face of the Lewinsky allegations began to change their view. "This is different from Monica Lewinsky, whose story goes back and forth," said Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. "Whatever happened, she [Lewinsky] was a willing participant. Kathleen Willey told a different story. She was an unwilling participant."
Even Clinton's staunchest defenders recognized the power of her story. Asked if he thought Willey came across as credible, White House press secretary Michael McCurry told reporters Monday: "I'm not a TV critic. I've seen a lot of commentary on that and I agree with most of what I've seen." But McCurry offered a cautionary warning: "I think within the first 24 hours of the Monica Lewinsky story we had people predicting that the Clinton presidency is over," he said. "So I think that it's wise to take those things with a grain of salt until you know more facts."
Behind that statement was a White House strategy to help supply "facts" designed to slow the rush to judgment. Already that morning, White House communications director Ann F. Lewis had been on the morning news programs to say the Willey she had seen on television was far different from the Willey who had come to her office asking to work in Clinton's reelection campaign in 1996.
On Monday afternoon, the same White House that has resisted providing any information to the public about Lewinsky's visits to the White House or messages to the president released a sheaf of letters from Willey to Clinton, along with a detailed record of her visits, telephone calls and other messages. The intention was clear: to portray Willey as someone who maintained a cordial and continuing relationship with Clinton long after the alleged sexual encounter in November 1993, and therefore cast doubt on her version of events.
On ABC's "Nightline" last Tuesday, Lewis was asked to square her comments about Willey's behavior and what she had said about Anita F. Hill in October 1991, after Hill had accused Clarence Thomas, who was up for confirmation to the Supreme Court, of sexual harassment. Hill's critics made the same case against her that Willey's critics made last week, that she had stayed in touch and seemed friendly with Thomas after the episodes of alleged harassment.
"You don't know what it's like to be a young working woman, to have this really prestigious and powerful boss you think you have to stay on the right side of him or for the rest of your working life or he could nix another job," Lewis said then. "If you have trouble listening to women's voices, please listen to what I said again. I said she was trying to stay on his right side because her economic career would be at stake."
ABC's Ted Koppel then said to Lewis, "Those same words could have been said about Kathleen Willey with regard to the president, could they not?"
"People will draw their own conclusions," Lewis responded.
She pointed out some differences between the two cases: that women's groups were trying to make sure that Hill's story would be heard and that Hill's critics had leveled harsh criticism of her. "I'm not characterizing her behavior," Lewis said of Willey. "I'm not using adjectives here. I'm trying to give you some facts."
There was more. After Willey's television appearance, it was revealed that her attorney, Daniel Gecker, had sought a $300,000 book contract for Willey from New Millennium Entertainment, saying she needed the money because of debts left by her husband, who by coincidence committed suicide the same day Willey and Clinton met in the Oval Office. The deal never went through.
Later in the week, it was reported that Willey's lawyer had been approached by the Star, a tabloid newspaper, about possibly selling her story. Those discussions also led to nothing.
Finally, Willey's credibility was called into question by a longtime friend, Julie Hiatt Steele, who released an affidavit accusing Willey of asking her to lie to Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff about what had happened in the Oval Office.
The accumulation of information did what the White House had hoped. By week's end, Willey's story no longer seemed as strong as it had on television. As credible as Willey appeared, her account still left some questions unanswered. That was evident immediately to some viewers. The same Democratic strategist who sensed troubled on Sunday night had come to a different conclusion by early the next day. "I came into my office and people thought she was very credible, but felt like things didn't add up," this Democrat said. "[They said] the whole sequence doesn't make sense, it couldn't have happened that way. I was surprised by that . . .. Whatever credibility she's had will probably start to move in the other direction."
The roller coaster of the Willey story reinforced the nervousness of Republicans on Capitol Hill. The unfolding Lewinsky story has immobilized many Republicans. Initially they believed the allegations against the president were so powerful, there was no need to say anything. Now, with Clinton's approval ratings still buoyant, they are torn between a desire to try to shift public opinion and a fear of attacking a popular chief executive.
Behind the scenes, however, GOP leaders have been talking about what to do if and when Starr sends his findings to Congress. Last week, those discussions became public through what appeared to be a series of trial balloons.
There was the report early in the week that House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was leaning toward the creation of a select committee that would include several aggressive Republicans to deal with the Starr investigation, rather than turning the matter over to the House Judiciary Committee. Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), the Judiciary Committee chairman, was described as "less than happy" about the idea of bypassing his committee. And he sent a memo to Gingrich warning that his plan could politicize the proceedings.
At midweek, Gingrich and Hyde met and agreed, at an appropriate time, to send a small group of House members to examine Starr's evidence to help determine whether there was any basis for the House to consider impeachment proceedings.
Republicans reacted nervously to a plan they regared as an effort to screen Starr's evidence before he had finished his inquiry. The next day, Gingrich and Hyde issued a statement in an effort to assure their colleagues that nothing would occur "until and unless" Starr submitted a report to Congress.
By week's end, Republicans were still attempting to sort things out. Several Republicans familiar with the discussions said no decisions have been made by Gingrich and Hyde. One said Hyde's memos to Gingrich had listed three options for handling any proceedings: the Judiciary Committee, a select committee or a task force. Another Republican said Hyde's "preference is for the Judiciary Committee to deal with any inquiry."
"This is still in the formation process," another Republican close to the leadership said. "We don't know how many people. They would be bipartisan. Regardless of the option chosen, Hyde would be the chairman. . . . All of this is an 'if' option." Other considerations important to Gingrich are the inclusion of female members on any panel investigating the evidence.
Republican frustration with Clinton's poll numbers in the face of what they see as damaging evidence boiled over once again last week. Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.) called the president a sexual "predator." House Minority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) took to the well of the House to deliver a blistering attack on the president. "I cannot think of a better way to bring on formal congressional proceedings than to go on hindering, obstructing and belittling the judicial proceedings now underway," he said.
The strong rhetoric notwithstanding, Republicans remain cautious about how to proceed. "We cannot be viewed as a Congress that is gearing up [for impeachment]," one GOP congressional official said. "We plan for lots of contingencies that never occur. . . . This is going to be a story driven by facts." Then he added, "The charges are many and the facts are few."
'Fade Into Oblivion'
The president's approval ratings continue to shape the political climate in the ongoing maneuvering between the White House and Republicans. As long as they remain high, Republicans will be reluctant to move aggressively against the president, and the president's allies take confidence in their belief that the controversy will not be resolved so much as it will "fade into oblivion," as Hillary Rodham Clinton has said.
But the polls tell a conflicting story, and beneath the impressive approval ratings there are signs of a president whose moral authority may be eroding.
Two nights of polling by ABC News last week produced a bifurcated portrait of the president. Not only was his job approval strong, but those surveyed said they regarded him as a strong leader who understood their problems. At the same time, the view of whether he was honest and trustworthy was at its lowest point of his presidency. Only 28 percent said Clinton has high personal and moral standards, down from 41 percent last June.
Republican pollster Bill McInturff said the relationship between Clinton's job approval and personal approval is low by historical standards, and the president's personal approval is dropping. In McInturff's polls, it has fallen from 46 percent in early February to about 40 percent now. Among college-educated women, the decline in Clinton's personal approval rating was significant: from 61 percent last October to 34 percent today. "The guy is dropping in every single survey among women," McInturff said.
Another GOP official said the fact that a growing number of Americans do not believe Clinton is telling the truth spells trouble. "It won't affect him right now, but there will come a moment when he has to ask the American people to trust him," said New Hampshire national committeeman Tom Rath. "That is an essential element of the office. The diminishing of the office by weakening that basic contract is where the criticism will be directed."
A number of public opinion analysts and scholars said the recent Iraqi crisis demonstrated the damage Clinton has suffered. "He did not make an effective case on Iraq," said Stephen Hess. This is very debilitating."
A Democratic strategist said, "If the time comes when he has to call on his moral authority, he'll be hard pressed to do that. People have thought of him as someone who didn't tell the truth." Clinton, he said, has been lucky so far. Good economic times and the relative absence of major foreign policy crises have limited his need to ask the country for sacrifice. "The truth is he hasn't been put to the test," he added. "Push would come to shove if the president ever had to ask the American people to sacrifice for some national goal."
Charles O. Jones, a presidential scholar, said it may be too early to judge how much Clinton has been weakened. "But there is one clear effect," he said. "It is uncertainty on the part of everybody as to what's happening to this president and his presidency. So the Republicans are uncertain. What does it mean [to them] that he has high performance scores? Do we need to pay attention to him? The Democrats are uncertain with an election coming up."
Jones then pointed to the fact that Clinton leaves today for an 11-day trip to Africa, which will be followed by more overseas visits between now and the fall. "He's taking off now on an unbelievable foreign trip schedule over the next four months," Jones said. "Who are we dealing with?"
Staff researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company