By John F. Harris
Clinton asserts that Lewinsky's claims on surreptitiously recorded tapes that they had a sexual relationship are either fantasy or untruthful boasting, according to two people who have spoken directly with both Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and others who are close to Clinton's inner circle.
The president's assertion appears to be part of a cautiously emerging defense from a White House that has been paralyzed with indecision since the story of Lewinsky's allegations was first reported on Wednesday. Apparently spurred by his wife, the president has brought back some veteran advisers, such as attorneys Mickey Kantor and Harold Ickes and television producer Harry Thomasson, to help craft a damage-control strategy.
Kantor and Thomasson were among a group of friends who gathered at the White House last night to watch a movie, "The Apostle," in what Clinton aides described as a morale-boosting session.
Other Clinton advisers -- including Paul Begala, Rahm Emanuel and Ann Lewis on the White House staff, as well as political consultant James Carville -- are fanning out on talk shows to make a public appeal not to rush to judgment on Clinton.
But these advisers don't intend to present new facts about the allegations designed to put Clinton in a better light. Clinton lawyers have warned that they do not yet have a clear enough understanding of what the relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky was, and they are worried that any statements he or his advisers make publicly will later be exploited by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr if their stories are not airtight.
The brave face put on by these defenders is being undermined in some surprising quarters. Former White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta, in an interview with the San Jose Mercury-News, urged that Clinton make an immediate and forthright public explanation -- the exact opposite of his current strategy.
"This thing has got to be resolved quickly," Panetta told the newspaper. "I'm one of those who believe that when faced with this kind of issue, the president has to go to the people."
Panetta said that if the allegations of a sexual relationship and obstruction of justice turn out to be "baseless charges, it'll be okay." But raising a specter that is for now unmentioned among Clinton aides, he said that if the allegations are true, it would be better for Democrats if "[Vice President] Gore became president and you had a new message and new individual up there."
Clinton's private account of his relationship with Lewinsky may in time be the explanation he offers publicly, according to some of his advisers.
Clinton, according to these people, has acknowledged that having a friendship with the 24-year-old Lewinsky looks odd, and in retrospect was unwise. But Clinton supposedly told friends the two became close in part because they shared stories about their turbulent family upbringings, the sources said. Lewinsky is the child of divorced parents, and Clinton grew up with an adoptive father who was an alcoholic and sometimes physically abusive.
Clinton has publicly denied having a sexual relationship with Lewinsky or encouraging her to lie about it. But he has repeatedly refused to describe in detail what kind of relationship they did have and has not addressed such issues as why he gave her a dress and other gifts, as Lewinsky said on the tapes.
And such a public explanation is unlikely to come soon. Clinton's political advisers and legal team, after occasionally tense deliberations, have concluded that their initial hope -- that Clinton could offer an early public explanation of his relationship with Lewinsky -- was unrealistic, senior administration officials said, and it is now probable that the president will for several weeks stick to his current public line -- that he can't address the Lewinsky controversy in detail so long as Starr is investigating.
At the same time, Clinton is reaching out to longtime friends to help with his defense. Kantor, the former commerce secretary who has known both Clintons since the 1970s and was chairman of his 1992 campaign, has signed on as an assistant on Clinton's legal team.
His role, according to senior administration officials, will be to offer political advice and boost morale. The fact that he has joined Clinton's team as a lawyer means that, unlike other Clinton political advisers, Kantor's advice is "privileged," meaning he cannot later be subpoenaed by prosectors to testify about what Clinton has told him.
Likewise, Thomasson, a friend from Arkansas days who helped Clinton fight scandal allegations in the 1992 campaign, has arrived in Washington.
"My political reaction is to respond immediately," said White House communications director Ann Lewis, who added: "We've learned the hard way that it's more important to do it right than to do it early."
Clinton advisers said they considered but ultimately rejected various dramatic gestures to defuse the controversy -- a lengthy ask-me-anything news conference, for instance, or a prime-time speech or interview. The consensus was that such things probably would not work.
Instead, Clinton and his team will continue to assert innocence but not respond to the steady stream of sensational new leaks and allegations that continue to pour forth about Clinton and his alleged sexual relationships. One aide invoked a boxing metaphor -- "the rope-a-dope strategy," in which a fighter simply absorbs punches while waiting for his opponent to tire out -- to describe the approach.
Even so, the Clinton team is uncomfortable going out in public with so few facts at its command. Advisers went back and forth yesterday over whether to accept invitations to appear on talk shows, according to a White House official. Ultimately, they decided that it was better to go out rather than appear to be hunkering down.
Clinton's lawyers and White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles have given strict orders to administration officials appearing publicly on Clinton's behalf not to challenge Starr's motives and tactics.
But this remains an essential part of Clinton's defense. Carville, an outspoken Starr critic, said last night that he intends on "Meet the Press" to call attention to what he sees as Starr's overreaching in pursuing the Lewinsky affair and the alleged pressure tactics he has used on witnesses.
"How we ever got from a $40,000 land deal to this is something historians will study," Carville said. "All the concerns I first raised about Starr two years ago have come to fruition in spades."
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