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Office of Damage Control
DNC Operation to Counter Negative Publicity

Clinton saluting
(Photo by Frank Johnston/The Washington Post)
By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 31, 1998; Page A01

The White House is establishing a new office at the Democratic National Committee to help coordinate damage control for President Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky controversy.

The operation will be paid for with party dollars and will be headed by Karen Hancox, a former White House political aide, with the purpose of sharing information among Clinton supporters and rallying them to defend Clinton publicly, according to White House communications director Ann Lewis.

Lewis said the operation will stay in regular touch with "friends and surrogates" of the administration and "send people distilled information" that they can use to counter the deluge of negative publicity caused by allegations that Clinton carried on an 18-month sexual relationship with the 24-year-old former intern, then urged her to lie about it.

The new damage-control operation is the latest indication of how the White House is setting up formal procedures for dealing with a crisis that aides now expect to be shadowing Clinton over the long haul. Already, there are twice-daily strategy sessions among Clinton's lawyers and his senior political advisers, at 8:30 a.m. and again at 7 p.m., to coordinate strategy.

Increasingly, however, there is little to coordinate on the public front. The White House yesterday continued to rebuff requests to explain what contacts Clinton -- who has denied having sexual relations with Lewinsky or urging her to lie -- had with the former intern. White House press secretary Michael McCurry yesterday told reporters, "I'll refer you to my transcript yesterday, which referred to my transcript the day before." The first original transcript quoted McCurry declining to comment.

The White House's strategy, which mirrors the approach Clinton has followed on the Democratic fund-raising controversy, is to put the scandal on a separate track -- in which the president publicly makes no mention of the allegations and carries on as if everything were normal.

Clinton yesterday invited the U.S. Conference of Mayors to the White House to announce that his new budget includes $400 million for a "community empowerment fund" designed to give subsidized loans to businesses to locate in inner cities.

In addition, aides said, Clinton called French President Jacques Chirac as part of his effort to rally support for a U.S. military strike against Iraq next month if Baghdad does not stop denying access to U.N. weapons inspectors. Later in the day he played host to the 1997 Stanley Cup champions, the Detroit Red Wings.

Despite the appearance of routine, there were plenty of signs of how much Clinton remains troubled. On Thursday at a party for a departing White House official, Clinton asked veteran Democratic lobbyist Tommy Boggs for an assessment of how badly the controversy would hurt him on Capitol Hill, according to one person who heard Boggs's recitation of the conversation.

White House officials confirmed that Boggs and Clinton spoke, but did not detail the conversation, and Boggs did not return a call yesterday.

While Clinton is rallying political supporters in the wake of the controversy, he appears to be doing something similar on the personal front. Daughter Chelsea took time off from classes at Stanford University to fly back to Washington Thursday night. She and Clinton, joined by the president's brother, Roger, flew to Camp David last night, planning to spend the weekend, White House officials said.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton will not be there. She left yesterday for a world economic conference in Davos, Switzerland. The first lady's office said Chelsea's decision to fly home was made in part because she wanted to see high school friends and was not linked to the Lewinsky controversy. But other Clinton aides said they believed the president was eager to be surrounded by family and friends after a draining week.

In public, Clinton shows few signs of that strain.

"I've never seen him as good as he was this morning," said Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo, who appeared with Clinton before the mayors. "I think he's at the top of his game when the pressure is on."

Increasingly, the pressure is going to be coming not only from the political crisis he is facing at home. Administration officials said the standoff over Iraq is likely to come to a head within two weeks -- forcing Clinton to decide whether he is to strike Iraq, despite a lack of consensus among many other nations, particularly Russia, that this is the right response to Iraq's intransigence.

Meeting with reporters yesterday, White House national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger said Clinton is prepared to act even if other nations object. "We can't let our foreign policy be hostage to the lowest common denominator," he said. If an attack against Iraq comes, Berger said, "the purpose of that would be to significantly diminish [Saddam Hussein's] capacity . . . to threaten his neighbors."

Yesterday's HUD initiative is contained in the federal budget plan that Clinton and Vice President Gore will present Monday. The proposal would send some $400 million to about 100 localities around the country. Local business partnerships will compete for the subsidized loan money to promote inner-city development. The plan would require that businesses raise about four dollars in private money for each dollar of HUD loan money.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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