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Panetta's Advice Annoys White House

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 12, 1998; Page A08

For 31 months, whenever Leon E. Panetta felt the urge to give advice to President Clinton, he only had to take a few steps down the hall and knock.

Now Panetta is 3,000 miles removed from that prime real estate, but still giving advice that echoes at the White House. The difference is the words are typically delivered on national television. And to the chagrin of his former colleagues, they are not always "on message."

Through nearly three months of controversy about the nature of Clinton's involvement with onetime intern Monica S. Lewinsky, his former White House chief of staff has been traveling the public airwaves like a peripatetic Greek bard, delivering the same off-message message: Come forward, Mr. President, Panetta keeps saying almost plaintively. Talk to us. Tell us what happened.

"The president cannot continue to dodge the questions on this because ultimately it does affect his ability to be president of the United States," Panetta said on CNN a few weeks back. "Clearly in regard to Monica Lewinsky, something went haywire," he said on CNBC a week or so later.

From Panetta's point of view, these sorts of comments are an act of loyalty -- a candid assessment of the situation and practical advice about how the president can get beyond this political crisis by giving a full explanation to the American public. At the White House, that view is not so widely shared. While they know and like Panetta, and generally accept that his thoughts are offered in good faith, the people running the White House are weary of and sometimes exasperated by what they consider to be talking out of school.

When Panetta says that if he were still in the White House he would be urging the president to tell the truth, some former associates bristle. "What does he think we're doing," a presidential aide said, "telling him to lie?"

Panetta is not the only former White House official to stray from the official line since the Lewinsky situation broke in January. George Stephanopoulos has generated plenty of uncomfortable moments for his friends on Pennsylvania Avenue with frequently skeptical commentaries on ABC News, his new employer.

"The difference with Leon is some people wonder, 'You're not getting paid for this. Why do you keep doing it?' " said another White House official who, like most, did not want to be named. "And the most reasonable answer I've heard is he wants to keep an oar in the water."

For most of his three decades in the capital, Panetta had one of the biggest oars in Washington, not only as the chief of staff who helped right the White House when it had capsized politically after the 1994 congressional elections, but also in earlier incarnations as chairman of the House Budget Committee and the director of Clinton's Office of Management and Budget.

Panetta has a long history of speaking his mind, even if it hurts. At the beginning of his political career, he was a liberal Republican who served as President Richard M. Nixon's director of the U.S. Office for Civil Rights until he was fired in a dispute over what he considered the administration's racial tactics. By the time he took over at OMB in Clinton's first term, he was still capable of shocking Washington with candor, once generating front-page headlines when he simply stated the obvious, saying the president's legislative agenda was in trouble in Congress.

"That's the way I am," Panetta, 59, said last week in a telephone interview from Carmel Valley in California, the home he retreated to after leaving the White House in January 1997. "That's the way I am comfortable, speaking what I believe when I'm asked questions. I'm not going to change now. It's part of who I am."

In the days after independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr began investigating whether Clinton obstructed justice by encouraging Lewinsky to lie under oath about having a sexual relationship, Panetta was among the first Democrats to raise the prospect of resignation publicly.

If the allegations were true, he told a local newspaper, it would be better if Vice President Gore "became president and you had a new message and new individual up there." In the weeks to come, he appeared on virtually every network, always careful to say that he gave the president the benefit of the doubt and understood the legal concerns about speaking out, but maintaining that Clinton should explain the situation because "obviously there was something more here" between Clinton and Lewinsky. His compatriots back at the White House, he said, were wrong in believing that "if you stonewall these things they'll go away."

Some baffled colleagues thought Panetta's comments must have resulted from his desire to run for governor of California. But Panetta has taken himself out of consideration and has no obvious new campaign in mind yet continues to express the same opinions.

"I'm not surprised that he would speak out so decisively and with such authority," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a longtime friend. "Remember: When he started, he walked away from a budding career as a young man out of principle. I really think he speaks with honesty and candor on this. I don't think he has any ambition or other motive here."

With Stephanopoulos, who was at Clinton's side from the early days of his first presidential campaign, the public break from his onetime mentor seems to friends to stem in part from some sense of personal disappointment with the president. With Panetta, who was never as personally close to Clinton, different emotions seem at play. Beyond his professed desire for candor, Panetta seems concerned that the scandal could obscure all the important accomplishments of an administration to which he tied his fortunes.

"I care about what history ultimately will say about all that," Panetta said. "You give a big part of your life to make sure he's successful as president. . . . To solidify that legacy, this issue has to be put behind us."

The issue of Clinton and women worried Panetta when he was in the White House as well, he acknowledges. Although Lewinsky worked in his office as an intern, Panetta told Starr's grand jury he did not know her and had no knowledge of Clinton having an improper relationship with her or anyone else. But the problem of appearances, he has said in recent interviews, was always a consideration.

Schedules were scoured to ensure that Clinton was never in a situation that might be misinterpreted -- visiting someone's home or having a female overnight guest in the White House when Hillary Rodham Clinton was out of town, for example, or traveling in a limousine alone with a woman.

"If somebody said they wanted to ride with the president, you would either make sure you would say no or make sure someone else was there," Panetta said. Clinton, he added, understood that his advisers were looking out for him. "He was very cooperative with that. He welcomed that."

But those precautions failed to forestall the Lewinsky controversy, whatever the true nature of their relationship. And now, Panetta believes, the president is being ill-served by advisers who tell him to keep quiet.

"I honestly don't blame the president," he said. But "every once in a while, you have to stand back and say, 'I don't care what this poll says, I don't care what this consultant says and I don't care what this focus group says. Sometimes I just have to do what's right for the country.' And that's where this decision has to be made."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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