Caught Between Loyalty and Principle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 1998; Page A1
They are embracing her the way friends do when gloom arrives taking her out for lunches and dinners, sending her cards and flowers, dropping by her Arlington home to ask, "Is there anything we can do?"
They want desperately to make Betty Currie whole again.
The instinct is understandable: Before Kenneth W. Starr's report, she was a widely pitied figure, President Clinton's churchgoing secretary, a sweet, soft presence in the citadel of power, caught up in a scandal she didn't create. The indelible TV image was of an obscure civil servant being hauled before a grand jury in January, cowering as she tried to escape the media madness.
But in the last few weeks, as friend and Democratic strategist Tony Podesta put it, "she's taken a few whacks." First, the Starr report a graphic patchwork of testimony from various players in the Monica S. Lewinsky saga depicts Currie as enabling and hiding the president's trysts to a degree that surprised even some of Currie's friends. Then came the follow-up stories, which suggested that Currie's don't-ask-don't-tell allegiance had compromised the efforts of other White House aides who were trying to save Clinton from himself.
Now, transcripts of Currie's testimony in five grand jury appearances released Friday provide a fuller picture of the woman who was clearly in the middle of the Clinton-Lewinsky drama but whose memory grew fuzzier and fuzzier the more she was grilled. Rather than Currie being the crack in the Clinton armada that the independent counsel's office had hoped for, her testimony shows she was intent on remaining a faithful personal secretary unwilling to undermine her CEO.
It is difficult to know what to think of Betty Currie now. Through an intermediary, she declined a request for an interview on advice from her attorneys. Thus it is left to friends, colleagues and family to tell her story. And even some of them can't answer questions that could resolve the mysteries about Currie.
Why didn't this woman of strong religious beliefs refuse to be drawn into Clinton's illicit dalliance? Did duty require her to use roundabout routes to sneak Lewinsky into the Oval Office, to come in on weekend days solely to admit Lewinsky, to ask the Secret Service not to record Lewinsky's visits, to wait outside the Oval Office study while Clinton and Lewinsky cavorted and then leave with them so there wouldn't be "any perceptions" of untoward behavior?
Bob Currie fields the questions about his wife with ease.
"Betty is very loyal to her boss," he explains. "I don't think she perceived it as covering anything up. Monica and Betty were friends. Anybody who walked into her office was her friend."
Bob says his wife was swept into the presidential sex scandal simply because "she was there."
"I mean, it's the president of the United States. If he says, 'Can you do this? Can you do this?' what are you going to do?"
Couldn't she have stood up to him?
"There are limits," he says. "She's not going to go out and rob a bank." And in his mind, and hers, says Bob Currie, she didn't violate those limits.
"I don't think she has in any way, shape or form tried to facilitate this affair," he says, "and if she had thought there was something inappropriate about the relationship early on, she would have said something."
Bob Currie's interpretation of events doesn't jibe with Starr's. But Betty Currie's friends and her own grand jury testimony suggest that at times she was having a difficult inner struggle between carrying out her boss's wishes and following her own sense of what was right. In the end, it appears, Currie sided with the voice that told her to respect her boss's privacy and shield him from scrutiny.
She ignored the warnings of Clinton's personal aide, Steve Goodin, that Lewinsky was "bad news." She discounted the prevailing White House rumor that Lewinsky was a "stalker," meaning someone who would monitor the president's schedule and show up at his events. "I didn't consider her a stalker," Currie testified. And in arranging for Lewinsky to see Clinton alone, she was not heeding the admonition of Nancy Hernreich, her immediate supervisor and director of Oval Office operations, who already had counseled her about the pitfalls of Clinton meeting privately with women. She even gave Currie a short list of women to watch.
But Currie was clearly drawn to Lewinsky. She saw her as persistent and overbearing, but kind and generous at the same time. Lewinsky came to Currie's home. They met for drinks after work at the Hay-Adams Hotel. Given that others in Clinton's immediate orbit were "meanies," in Lewinsky's view, Lewinsky knew how important Currie was to her, and she was grateful. In August 1997, she gave Currie a Georgette Klinger gift certificate for a manicure and pedicure. A month later, she sent her a note: "You have put up with me through smiles and fits of tears. I hope one day I can repay your kindness."
This latest batch of Starr documents shows more clearly than before how Currie was being tugged simultaneously by Clinton and Lewinsky, each using her as a conduit to the other.
Clinton called her at home late on a Monday night in January and asked whether she had a computer so she could call up a "Drudge Report" story that exposed his affair on the Internet, though Clinton didn't cast it in those terms. Currie told him she hadn't heard about the report but would call it up. "And he said, 'Do you think you can reach Monica, see what's happening?' " Currie testified. "And I said, 'I can try. I can page her.' "
Currie testified that she had suspected impropriety in the relationship but had tried to avoid learning the particulars. On one occasion, when Lewinsky sought to bring Currie further into her confidence, Currie stopped her. "Don't say any more. I don't want to hear any more." The longer the liaison went on, the more Currie came to view the intern she had befriended as "a pain in the neck, more or less."
But what's revealing about Currie's testimony is just how difficult it was to pin her down on anything. Her answers are laced with evasions and phrases like "refresh my memory on that." And on the crucial episodes that could form the basis for impeaching the president, Currie stands by her boss. She maintains it was her idea not Clinton's to contact Vernon E. Jordan Jr. to assist in Lewinsky's New York job search. She says it was Lewinsky's idea not the president's to retrieve his gifts from Lewinsky's Watergate apartment. And on the critical question of whether Clinton had tried to coach Currie into lying for him by summoning her to the White House on a Sunday and presenting her with a series of leading questions about his relationship with Lewinsky, Currie told the grand jury he had not tried to influence her.
It was frustrating to members of Starr's team, since Currie had been more forthcoming in interviews with them than she seemed over her five grand jury appearances beginning Jan. 27, 1998, and extending to July 22.
Friends who have spoken to Currie over the past several weeks suggest that she didn't know quite how to handle an increasingly messy situation first Clinton wanted Lewinsky, then he wanted to keep her away. At some level, friends say, Currie was in denial, not wanting to believe the worst that a presidency was on the verge of unraveling. She also didn't have the kind of tenured relationship with Clinton, they say, that would have made her comfortable wagging a finger at the president or even working behind the scenes to prevent his self-destruction.
She is not one of the Arkansas crowd. She is a career federal government executive assistant who worked as an office manager in the 1992 campaign. She did such a good job in the "War Room" in Little Rock that she was sent to the transition team. She did such a good job there that when Clinton's personal secretary in the governor's mansion couldn't accompany him to the White House, Clinton was asked to try out Currie.
She had a reputation for being discreet and unconcerned about office gossip. She doesn't crave the limelight.
"Betty has the personality that she wants to please," says a former Oval Office employee who has high regard for Currie. She exercised "horrible, horrible judgment" in the Lewinsky matter, says this former co-worker. "You have to wonder why someone who was so strong in her values and character would compromise. But you get caught up in it, you lose perspective. ... The Oval Office area is a very intimidating area. I have seen grown men of stature come before the president and be reduced to bumbling idiots."
Not that anyone should think Currie a dupe. Some media reports have described her as almost apolitical because she has worked in government for nearly 34 years during Democratic and Republican administrations. But some who have worked closely with her say she is more savvy than those accounts imply.
"She's very shrewd and very political," says Tom Pauken, a Texas Republican who in 1981 inherited Currie as his executive secretary when he took over as director of ACTION, the now-defunct agency that ran the Peace Corps. "I had to chuckle a little at this description of her as a motherly, almost naive type of individual. Betty might be motherly, but she's definitely not naive in the ways of Washington and how to maneuver the levers of bureaucracy."
Pauken praises Currie as "very bright, very competent." But he transferred her to another division because he felt "she was part of a bureaucratic network that really ran the agency regardless of who was director. ... I wasn't comfortable that she would play it straight up with me."
Now this career government worker, who was surprised to land a job as Clinton's personal secretary, finds herself a central character in the biggest national scandal since Watergate.
"A lot of people who came to the White House to work hard have faced lots of disappointments," says Avis LaVelle, a friend of Currie's who was Clinton's national press secretary in the '92 campaign. "It hasn't always been the place where they realized their dreams. A lot of them will leave seriously loaded down with baggage, financial and otherwise. ... I just don't want to see Betty Currie hung out to dry."
Her mood seems to rise and fall like the stock market. Which is to say unpredictably. One friend who dined with Currie recently described her as "remarkably unfazed" by her situation; another who visited her recently in the Oval Office described her as loaded down with stress and worry.
Some wonder how she can still show up for work every day. How could she work for a president who called her in at 5 p.m. on a Sunday, the same day her ailing mother was released from the hospital, to ask her these questions?
"You were always there when she was there, right?"
"We were never really alone."
"Monica came on to me, and I never touched her, right?"
"You can see and hear everything, right?"
Is a $60,000 salary for 12-hour days worth that anxiety? Her husband says she has not even considered resigning and "will continue to work for the president as long as he wants her to."
But she doesn't watch the television news as much as she used to, especially not at home. Too much scandal. She hasn't been to a movie in eight months but attends services at Community United Methodist Church in Arlington every Sunday. She is careful about some of her public movements, and yet she is hardly a recluse.
In April, she was a guest of The Washington Post's at the annual White House correspondents' dinner, where she showed no reluctance to hobnob with the same tenacious journalists who were covering l'affaire Lewinsky. More recently, she partied with black professionals at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's annual legislative conference.
"Maybe she knows how to compartmentalize," says Minyon Moore, a friend who is director of the White House Office of Public Liaison. "It's like you're almost caught off guard on whether she even needs support or a support system."
Moore is one of those friends to whom Currie is not showing her pain. "It's like this stillness she kind of has inside her, like something else moves her ... like she believes in something higher than what's going on."
While Currie was dealing with the unfolding Lewinsky drama, she also had to grapple with a succession of personal tragedies. From May 1997 to May 1998, Currie lost her sister to a heart attack, her brother to a car accident and her mother to long-term illness. The president attended all three funerals.
"It was devastating," says Andrea Mucci, a friend of Currie's. "It was too much for her." Mucci has the dual job description of hairstylist to politicians and entertainers, and ordained minister. Not only has she set Currie's hair in the bob she wears sometimes, but she ministered to her family during their bereavement. "Betty is like Job. Job lost his whole family, but he received blessings. Everything was restored back to him at the end."
Restoration can come in many different forms.
Because Currie is among a select group of about 25 influential African American staffers in the White House, her predicament has triggered a protective impulse among blacks who work for the president or once did.
"She didn't deserve this at all," says Ben Johnson, deputy director of the White House Office of Public Liaison. "She's not a villain by any stretch of the imagination."
Johnson was among seven senior White House staffers most of them African Americans who took Currie to lunch recently at Tony Cheng's in Chinatown. "We just wanted to show her we appreciated her friendship," he says.
Over platters of sizzling salmon and General Tso's chicken, the aides discussed how little time they had made for each other, even though they all work in the White House, breathing the same rarefied air. Only at social functions, lamented one staffer, did they come together. Like at the swank Toyota/Sony Music party last month honoring Clinton's senior black staff. Currie was there at the Corcoran Gallery of Art that night, and "it was like being with a celebrity," Johnson recalls, so many well-wishers rushing to shake her hand and hug her.
But Johnson doesn't know the particulars of Currie's role in Clinton's difficulties. Most of Currie's friends have not gone that next step. They haven't asked Currie those vexing questions that might help them understand why she would endanger her own good reputation by aiding and abetting a president known for reckless behavior.
"I don't want to castigate her," says one friend. "But everyone is sort of figuring out this other Betty Currie. ... Couldn't she stand up to this president? She's a linchpin in some of this stuff."
When this friend went to see her in the White House after the Starr report landed, Currie remarked: "Girl, I'm going through a lot." And the friend, while sympathetic, gave Currie a knowing look. "Like at some point you're going to tell me something."
Another friend from the '92 campaign is also perplexed that Currie went as far as she did. "If you're asking me if I thought she would cross that line, I thought she wouldn't," says this friend. "I was surprised."
It is possible there are no contradictions between the Betty Currie the president once described as a "role model for many of us in the White House" and the Betty Currie who enabled Clinton and Lewinsky to have their clandestine rendezvous.
"I guess it's all how you look at your job," says LaVelle, who was in Little Rock with Currie in '92 and later worked in the administration. "I don't think that's ever been part of her makeup to enforce on people she worked for what was best for them. For some people, that's a comfortable role. I don't think that's a comfortable role for her."
LaVelle, now vice president at University of Chicago Hospitals, was in town recently and came to see Currie. "She's under a lot of stress. She's very concerned how this will spill out for her. I don't know exactly what happened there, but however that situation ends, Betty Currie's reputation should remain intact. Betty Currie was not the president's boss."
They were having an intimate dinner the other night at D.C. Coast. Two bottles of wine, the four of them. The maitre d' stopped by Betty Currie's table and introduced himself. He wanted to offer a gift she might find helpful at this time: a box of fortune cookies.
The Curries, Tony Podesta and a friend from the White House talked about food and wine and Congress and the president and flying, since Bob Currie is a pilot who likes to whisk his wife away for weekends. Unfortunately, with her job, he doesn't get many opportunities. "I have to book weekends two months in advance," he complains. Bob is a retired former planning director for the Environmental Protection Agency, and he's been trying to get his wife to join him in retirement.
At 58, Betty Currie keeps promising. Now she sits in an anteroom off the Oval Office greeting dignitaries and screening Clinton's calls. She has a splendid view of the Rose Garden.
But when Clinton's term is over, they've agreed, no more.
"I don't talk to her much about what goes on at work," says Bob Currie. "Generally when she's out of there, I value that she's out of there. We try to do something different."
Last weekend, they flew to New York for a getaway and had lunch at the Culinary Institute of America. Friends have offered them the use of houses in the mountains of West Virginia. Podesta is trying to talk them into joining him in Australia for Christmas and New Year's.
Betty Currie would like nothing more than to "return to her life when those of us who knew her loved her, and most of America didn't know her," says Podesta.
But that life already has been lost. She is destined to join other famous presidential secretaries Eisenhower's Ann Whitman, Kennedy's Evelyn Lincoln, Nixon's Rose Mary Woods. And before this saga is over, there probably will be more cameras in her face, more tough questions and more wonder at how this genteel secretary wound up as the pivotal link in a seamy affair.
"I think we both would just like to see it go away," says Bob Currie. "There are no winners in this one."
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