By John F. Harris
Once despondent over the crisis, presidential advisers inside and outside the White House said yesterday they are increasingly optimistic that they can justify what one called a "hunker-down strategy" in which Clinton explains nothing publicly as long as he is under legal investigation for obstruction of justice. Some aides said they expected this approach to last for months and possibly far longer.
Clinton can throw up a wall, several aides said yesterday, because he and his advisers believe they have been blessed with unappealing adversaries and a forgiving public.
The conduct of the people Clinton sees as his principal accusers -- independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and the news media -- in the Lewinsky controversy are viewed unfavorably by the public, Clinton aides noted, citing public polls and their own internal polls.
And while asserting that Clinton will never back off his flat denial of a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, several advisers noted with relief polls and anecdotal evidence they have compiled suggesting that the public is not outraged by allegations of presidential adultery.
Finally, some Clinton advisers outside the White House said they are encouraged by how Lewinsky herself is being portrayed in many news accounts -- as a sexually experienced and unreliable young woman, an enthusiastic participant rather than a naive victim in any possible relationship with Clinton.
All these factors are emboldening the Clinton team in its decision to try to shut off the flow of information to reporters and the public. When the allegations that Clinton carried on an 18-month sexual relationship with Lewinsky and coached her to lie about it first broke nine days ago, the line from White House aides was that Clinton would tell his side of the story once his lawyers had conducted a fact-finding search.
In fact, the principal elements of this search are done. For several days, sources said, Clinton lawyers have possessed the answers to critical questions, such as how often and when Lewinsky was cleared into the White House after she no longer worked there, and the precise dates of Clinton's conversations with her in recent weeks.
The issue, said several aides speaking on condition that they not be identified by name, is no longer that Clinton's lawyers do not know answers, but that they see no legal self-interest in having Clinton give them.
"I don't think the facts are all that complicated," said one Clinton adviser. "But I think it would be ludicrous for the president to say anything."
Even after newspapers have given detailed accounts of events -- such as a meeting Lewinsky and Clinton held on Dec. 28, after she was subpoenaed to testify in the Paula Jones case -- the White House has said nothing. While spokesmen have declined to contradict the reports, neither will they confirm them. Increasingly, silence is the rule.
"I am out of the loop," White House press secretary Michael McCurry said yesterday. He joked that his daily briefings, which in recent days have been carried live on several channels, have become a game of "bust the pin~ata" -- with McCurry the pin~ata and reporters the sticks.
Yet the say-nothing position has left the White House in an awkward posture. For the past week McCurry at daily briefings has been besieged by demands to explain why -- if Clinton's denials of a sexual relationship with Lewinsky and encouraging her to lie are true -- it would somehow hurt his legal case to give a detailed accounting of what their relationship was.
But the answers have remained oblique, with the spokesman saying only that Clinton is facing Starr in a "hostile proceeding."
Only on a not-for-attribution basis will White House aides expand on this. Their allegation is that once Clinton offers a public version, Starr might pressure Lewinsky to tailor her story so that it contradicts the president's.
White House aides acknowledge that Clinton's lack of a public explanation will leave many in the public suspecting that he is lying. Increasingly, however, they are willing to accept this.
What was once a robust internal debate between Clinton's lawyers and his political advisers about how much he should say about the Lewinsky controversy has been dormant for days. White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff and Clinton personal attorney David E. Kendall have so thoroughly prevailed that the argument is over, Democratic officials said. And even Clinton political advisers said that what they once viewed as a firestorm that demanded immediate attention is settling down.
Clinton's policy pronouncements, said White House adviser Paul Begala, are convincing people "that he is worrying about their lives and not about his."
"The American people would much rather talk about his program" than the scandal, he said.
Two Democrats who have consulted with the White House on the Lewinsky controversy said it is conceivable that Clinton will use the legal case to avoid addressing the matter for the balance of his term. McCurry dismissed these predictions as baseless, saying Clinton wants to talk and that the White House is continually reassessing its strategy as new developments unfold.
But for now, the choke on answers remains. When Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair hold a joint news conference Thursday, McCurry said the president will not answer questions on the Lewinsky case.
Keeping up his public business-as-usual demeanor, Clinton spoke on foreign policy yesterday at the National Defense University at Fort McNair here, before an audience that included his senior military commanders. In the speech, Clinton praised U.S. military forces. "At home and abroad, from Haiti to Bosnia, from Japan to Kuwait, at sea and on shore, it makes no difference where they're stationed, the rank they hold, or how many ribbons they wear, our service men and women reflect America's highest standards of skill, discipline and service," he said.
And he reaffirmed his warnings to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, demanding that he comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions and repeating that "we are determined to deny him the capacity to use weapons of mass destruction again."
Staff writer Thomas W. Lippman contributed to this report.
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