Advisers Urge Clinton to Publicly Repeat Denials of Affair
By John F. Harris
Presidential pollsters Mark Penn and Doug Schoen were conducting a national survey last night, paid for by the Democratic National Committee, to help guide Clinton and his political team in responding to the allegations, according to Democratic sources. Late last week, Penn, who has consulted regularly with Clinton and his advisers since the crisis began, told them the allegations were having only a modest impact on Clinton's standings, but advisers expect the new poll will show a steeper decline in the president's favorable ratings.
Other surveys conducted in recent days, including a Washington Post-ABC News poll over the weekend, have drawn a mixed picture of a public still supporting Clinton's presidency but deeply concerned over the allegations he may have lied.
In part because Clinton does not wish to make any mention of the Lewinsky controversy in the State of the Union speech, he has tentatively decided to appear at the White House this morning to repeat his denials that he had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky and encouraged her to lie about it.
A wide range of Clinton advisers within and outside the White House acknowledged a growing anxiety that the president's initial denials had not been accepted and that the controversy threatened to overwhelm Tuesday's address. These fears were exacerbated by what several past and current Clinton advisers described as an ineffectual public defense offered by several Clinton supporters appearing on TV talk shows.
The defenders, including White House aides Paul Begala and Rahm Emanuel, as well as political consultant James Carville, insisted that they believe Clinton and asked the public to withhold judgment. But they could offer no explanation of what Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky was and could provide no answers to such questions as why he reportedly gave her a dress and other personal gifts.
Clinton advisers, who discussed the issue on a not-for-attribution basis, said they remain hindered by their lack of knowledge -- with only Clinton and possibly two or three of his lawyers knowing any facts in the case.
The anxiety over what Clinton can prudently say in public was reflected by indecisiveness about today's appearance. Aides scheduled another meeting this morning to review whether Clinton should attend the gathering on child-care issues, which was scheduled to be presided over by Vice President Gore and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. The debate, as several Clinton advisers described it yesterday, was whether it does any good to appear in public without having critical details.
Almost as soon as the controversy erupted last Wednesday, a vigorous debate began between Clinton's political advisers and his legal team over whether he should try to quickly rebut the allegations with his own detailed explanation of what happened. The lawyers successfully argued that it would be foolhardy to attempt this because independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr could exploit any misstatements in his criminal investigation.
Instead, both political and legal advisers say it may be weeks before Clinton's lawyers have assembled enough information to allow the president to venture forth with an extended statement about his relationship with Lewinsky.
Against that background, administration officials on the Sunday talk shows spent much of their time challenging Starr's behavior rather than offering explanations of Clinton's.
Begala noted that Starr obtained his taped evidence of Lewinsky speaking through surreptitious recordings and accused his office of leaking material to reporters.
"This was not discovered evidence; this was created evidence," Begala said on ABC's "This Week."
"When you hook a wire to somebody, and you go in and you say, 'Well, generate some evidence here, generate some talk,' and then you turn and drop the dime in a phone and call the press, that's not the kind of investigation people need," Begala said.
On CBS's "Face the Nation," Emanuel was asked if Clinton might resign. "That's ridiculous," he said. "That's not even under consideration and never would be."
But the prospect of resignation was openly discussed elsewhere on the airwaves, including by former Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos, now an ABC commentator. Noting that he "is heartbroken with all the evidence coming out," Stephanopoulos said Clinton's survival in office depends on one question: "Is he telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? If he is, he can survive. If he isn't, he can't."
Privately, several administration officials and other Democratic political operatives said they are worried that Clinton may not be telling the truth. Several Democrats who have advised Clinton in the past and doubt his denials said yesterday they believe his best course would be to admit sexual indiscretions and plead for public forgiveness.
"If it's true, that's the only way" that Clinton could stay in office, said one Democrat who is close to many senior White House officials. "As much in denial as he is, he's smart enough to know that's the only solution."
Former commerce secretary Mickey Kantor, who this weekend became a member of Clinton's legal team, has discussed such a scenario while canvassing other Clinton loyalists for ideas, according to Democratic sources who say they have heard the conversations recounted by participants.
Kantor yesterday did not return telephone messages. An administration official said such conversations apparently occurred before Kantor joined Clinton's defense team and before he was in position to know firsthand Clinton's explanation of his relationship with Lewinsky.
Some senior Clinton administration officials not involved in the president's defense planning have said they favor such a "contrition strategy." Other officials who are close to the defense team said they know of no plans for Clinton to recant or modify his denials. They expressed doubt that Clinton would be of a mind to make such a modification, as well as whether it could mollify public opinion.
Begala said that such scenarios are being spun by people who have no way of knowing what the facts are. "The land of hypotheticals is the province of fools," he said.
White House aides said it is not unusual for Clinton to be polling on the controversy, because Penn and Schoen regularly survey opinion for the White House and DNC. Neither Penn nor Schoen returned pages yesterday.
Clinton spoke with his lawyers early in the day about the controversy, aides said, but devoted much of the afternoon to State of the Union preparation. He and a large contingent of speechwriters and policy aides discussed the speech for two hours around a table in the White House Map Room. Aides said Clinton planned to watch the Super Bowl later in the White House residence. Among those invited to join him was civil rights activist Jesse L. Jackson.
Some Democratic congressional staff members said they were highly skeptical of Clinton's current plan not to mention the Lewinsky controversy even in passing at the start of the speech because this clearly will be on the minds of everyone watching. "I think it's going to be totally surreal," said one aide to a senior Democrat.
But White House officials said they feel that even an inferential mention of the controversy will allow reporters to focus on that to the exclusion of the policy initiatives Clinton will talk about.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company