By Ruth Marcus
Whenever President Clinton finds himself in trouble, Bruce Lindsey is on the job, the seemingly permanent commander-in-chief of the Clinton shovel brigade.
An intense 49-year-old Arkansas lawyer for whom a blue blazer passes as casual attire, Lindsey serves as the invisible "captain of the defense," as one former White House colleague put it, for the crisis of the moment. Lindsey's preferred modus operandi, as described by those who have worked with him over the years, is to tamp down trouble even before it erupts or, when pressed, to relinquish only whatever tiny morsels of information he judges sufficient to keep the news media at bay.
Whether the allegations involve the draft, sexual liaisons or Whitewater, Lindsey functions as the president's political lookout, bearer of bad news and chief damage control specialist.
"There is no end to which Bruce wouldn't go for the president," said Bill Burton, a fellow Arkansan and former White House colleague. "There are things Bruce would do for the president that nobody else on Earth would do, and Bruce wouldn't even think twice about it."
Now, after countless rounds of questioning by congressional investigators and lawyers for independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, Lindsey is expected to appear before a grand jury to answer questions from Starr's lawyers about the allegations that the president lied under oath when he denied having a sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky and instructed her to lie as well.
Lindsey has been subpoenaed by Starr because of conversations he had last year with former White House aide and Lewinsky confidante Linda R. Tripp, who worked briefly as Lindsey's executive assistant. Tripp came to Lindsey after reporters began inquiring about a 1993 episode in which Tripp allegedly saw White House volunteer Kathleen E. Willey near the Oval Office with her blouse untucked and makeup smeared.
Tripp said last August that Willey told her then that, when she sought his help getting a job, Clinton had kissed her and fondled her in his private study off the Oval Office. But a set of talking points Lewinsky gave Tripp last month suggested that Tripp say that she now believes Willey manufactured the incident.
Starr's prosecutors want to know, among other things, about Lindsey's conversations with Tripp and whether he played any role in preparing the talking points. White House officials have said that Lindsey denies having anything to do with the talking points, but did not respond to other questions about whether Lindsey spoke to Lewinsky about her dealings with the president.
Lindsey was originally scheduled to appear yesterday but his testimony was postponed while the White House counsel's office and Starr's lawyers discuss the scope of questioning and the White House weighs whether to claim that some of Lindsey's conversations with Clinton are shielded by executive privilege.
One former colleague likened Lindsey's approach in handling various White House controversies to that of a criminal defense lawyer who doesn't worry so much about whether or not his client is guilty as he does about how to poke holes in the prosecution's case.
"The only way the president could have survived all this is with Bruce Lindsey and the reason is Bruce has helped clear up . . . the great vast majority of [false allegations against Clinton]," the former official said. "He's been the unwavering person in the White House who reminds everybody we cannot turn for a second and consider the potential truth of these. We have to attack, attack, attack."
For Lindsey, a grand jury appearance would be only the latest in a string of legal travails that friends say has cost him $250,000 to $500,000 in legal fees, according to his most recent financial disclosure form, and taken an emotional toll as well. The ravages of the experience show on his spare frame; Lindsey, who started out thin, has dropped about 30 pounds since Clinton took office.
His darkest moments, friends said, came when he was named an "unindicted co-conspirator" in a case in which Starr alleged that Lindsey had directed a pair of Arkansas bankers, Herby Branscum Jr. and Robert M. Hill, to conceal large cash withdrawals used to finance get-out-the-vote efforts in Clinton's 1990 gubernatorial campaign.
In June 1996, the normally media-shy Lindsey rushed to the White House driveway to defend himself when news of Starr's plan to name him as an unindicted co-conspirator emerged, declaring: "I have done nothing wrong. There is no reason or purpose for me to resign."
Although the judge hearing the case ruled that there was enough evidence to show that Lindsey participated in the conspiracy, he was vindicated when Branscum and Hill were acquitted of the bank fraud and conspiracy charges against them. The White House's controversies have been "more difficult for Bruce than just about anyone else because he takes everything to heart, and I think if the president is hurt, he's hurt, and if the president is up, he's up," said former senator David Pryor (D-Ark.).
The son of a renowned Little Rock lawyer, Lindsey has known Clinton for 30 years, since they worked together for then-Sen. William Fulbright (D-Ark.). Lindsey advised Gov. Clinton from Wright, Lindsey & Jennings, his father's law firm, where Lindsey practiced management-side labor law, then signed on to the presidential campaign. "Bruce was the one constant on the campaign. He was there by Bill Clinton's side from the beginning to the end," said former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers. "Part of what he brought was the institutional memory. He knew Bill Clinton. He knew who Bill Clinton's friends were. He knew where all the information was, and on an issue like the draft . . . knew how to get ahold of people who had more information than we did in the early days and could help buttress the president's case."
At the White House, where he began as personnel chief, Lindsey's formal title is deputy White House counsel. But his portfolio is far broader, encompassing substantive issues such as the tobacco settlement, labor relations, product liability and judicial selection along with damage control efforts, and his access to the president, as his near-constant traveling companion and Air Force One hearts partner, is far more constant than that title would suggest.
Former Senate Whitewater committee counsel Robert J. Giuffra Jr. called Lindsey "the go-to guy for taking care of all the really serious problems" in the administration, from securities litigation to Whitewater.
If Lindsey had some involvement handling the Lewinsky and Willey allegations, it wouldn't be the first time he was drawn into such damage control efforts. For example, in 1994, when reporters were looking into Paula Jones's allegations that Clinton sexually harassed her and seeking evidence of any similar conduct with other women, Lindsey called a former flight attendant on Clinton's campaign plane who had been contacted by reporters.
The aide, Christy Zercher, quotes Lindsey asking: "Did you say anything to anybody? What did they want to know? Did they want to know if Clinton was flirting on the airplane?" He urged her to say "all positive things," Zercher recalled.
Lindsey said at the time that he understood Zercher was upset about being called and wanted to assure her she did not have to talk if she chose not to.
Earlier, he led the White House defense when the American Spectator reported allegations that Arkansas state troopers said Clinton used them to procure women when he was governor. In one of the few times Lindsey's behind-the-scenes role has emerged so starkly, an ABC news crew captured Lindsey on the telephone with a sympathetic former trooper, Buddy Young, as they filmed an interview in Young's office. "We need you to do CNN at some point," Lindsey told Young. "Call the White House and ask them to page me while you hold or have me call you right back."
Lindsey's handling of the Clintons' Whitewater real estate investment, beginning in the 1992 campaign and continuing into the White House, reflects his instinct for keeping disclosure to a minimum. "Bruce is circumspect and tight-lipped beyond belief," said former deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes. "I don't think I've ever run into anyone who is as circumspect and tight-lipped as he is."
As Clinton braced to answer questions about the first New York Times report on Whitewater in March 1992, Newsweek later reported in its insider book on the campaign, Lindsey advised him, "Remember, less is more."
In December 1993, as The Washington Post pressed for detailed answers to questions about the Whitewater transaction, Lindsey's reaction was, "Well if we give them this they'll just want more," James Stewart reported in his book, "Blood Sport." In the end, although some presidential advisers urged that the White House provide information, Lindsey's view prevailed. "We see no need to supplement the [original 1992 campaign report on Whitewater] or to provide further documentation," he told The Post.
When allegations about Democratic fund-raising practices erupted three years later, in the closing days of Clinton's reelection campaign, Lindsey adopted a similar strategy. He told White House lawyers Mark Fabiani and Jane Sherburne to characterize meetings between Clinton and Indonesian banker James Riady as "casual, drop-by visits."
That account omitted the fact -- which emerged only after the election -- that Clinton had discussed the administration's policy toward China and Indonesia with Riady and that at one of the meetings, John Huang, Riady's employee at the Lippo Group, had asked for a fund-raising position at the Democratic National Committee.
In a memorandum to then-Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta, Sherburne described efforts to wrest information out of Lindsey, saying that "nearly everything I had learned from Bruce since [his initial account of the visit as purely social] had been as a result of asking him to confirm what I had learned from other sources."
Lindsey has also provided contradictory accounts about when he learned about White House efforts to find work for close Clinton friend Webster L. Hubbell after he was forced to resign as associate attorney general. White House officials had said that Lindsey did not know about the Lippo Group's hiring of Hubbell until news accounts in 1996.
However, in a deposition with Senate Whitewater investigators, Lindsey said he knew of Hubbell's consulting work for Lippo as early as November 1994 because Lippo planned to send a group of 20 Arkansans, including Hubbell, to Indonesia to meet Clinton on a trip there. "I believe I may have been told that he was on the list because he was doing some work for them," said Lindsey, who quashed the trip. Lippo paid Hubbell $100,000.
A number of present and former colleagues strongly defended Lindsey's integrity and said the portrayal of him as unwilling to give information to the news media was misguided.
"There's that great myth floating around out there, and it just ain't so," said White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff. Former White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum called Lindsey "totally loyal but totally honest and a person of impeccable judgment," while Pryor said: "I can't imagine him really trying to be deceptive. I don't think he can spell the word manipulate."
In the end, the final judgment rests with Clinton, who prizes Lindsey for his unique combination of loyalty, discretion and shared history. "That combination results in the president putting an enormous amount of trust and confidence in Bruce," Ickes said. "If there's anyone the president would put his life in his hands, other than Hillary, it would be Bruce."
Said former White House official Burton, "Unquestionably, and it is not a close call, Bruce gets the most valuable player award in this administration, and there is not a close second."
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
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