Cornered, White House Brandishes Facts on Willey
By John F. Harris
Had Willey ever been on the payroll? Ever met with the president? Ever been appointed to government boards? White House aides gave no answers.
So it was a striking turn of events this week when information about Willey's meetings and correspondence with the president came tumbling out -- courtesy of the White House. At the same time, lots of other questions about Willey yesterday were met with non-answers from presidential spokesmen.
The episode amounted to perhaps the most vivid illustration so far of the White House's belief that information is a potent weapon. When facts are damaging, they are kept secret with few apologies. When they are helpful, as senior Clinton advisers believe they are in the Willey case, the White House becomes an advocate of public disclosure.
It is a practice that the Clinton White House has followed on controversies from Whitewater to campaign fund-raising to the latest allegations of sexual misconduct by Clinton.
In the case of Willey, who told her story of being groped against her will by Clinton to some 29 million viewers on CBS's "60 Minutes," the policy of selective disclosure has blunted what White House officials considered the most dangerous week for the president since the Monica S. Lewinsky allegations broke in late January.
Several people who have advised the president on damage control, both inside and outside the White House, said they considered their most urgent task this week to be rebutting Willey's suggestion that she was the victim of coercive behavior by Clinton. They said the notes she sent Clinton, including one professing to be his "number one fan," undermine her claims that she was angry at the president's behavior.
Significantly, some Clinton advisers, who said they could speak candidly only if not quoted by name, made no effort to argue on behalf of Clinton's story that there were no sexual overtones to his encounter with Willey in November 1993 in a private hallway outside the Oval Office. Some advisers even acknowledged that they found it at least plausible that Willey and Clinton were intimate on a consensual basis.
That Clinton loyalists would offer such a minimalist defense reflects the White House's assessment of public opinion. Advisers said they long ago concluded, much to their reassurance, that Clinton's standing with the public is not hurt by allegations of adultery as long as the behavior does not cross the line into harassment.
"Clinton's not a coercive guy; he's very subtle," said one adviser. "Were they together? Yes. Did something happen? Possibly. . . . I think she is lying about how she felt about it." Aides were buoyed by polls taken by news organizations after Willey's television interview that show the president's approval ratings still holding near historic highs. A CBS poll on Monday night, for example, showed that 52 percent of people believed Clinton engaged in reckless sexual conduct, but that two-thirds approved of his performance as president. A CNN/USA Today poll taken by Gallup showed 43 percent believed Willey's story, while 40 percent believed Clinton, even as 60 percent said they have a favorable opinion of him. An ABC poll had comparable job approval ratings, but respondents said that if perjury were proved, their opinions would change drastically.
Mark Penn, who conducts polls for the White House paid for by the Democratic National Committee, said the public is not reacting differently to the Willey allegations than it has to the stories of other women. "The public has a very sophisticated view of this," he said. They approve of Clinton's policies and believe "these other matters are things that should not be part of an investigation."
While many Clinton loyalists freely express their view in private that Willey is lying, the White House is taking pains to avoid expressing such blunt judgments about her veracity in public -- even while releasing information that has led some to that conclusion.
The White House has consistently refused to release appointment schedules and correspondence between Clinton and Lewinsky. White House press secretary Michael McCurry said the White House was prompted to release information in Willey's case because "it's a much more dramatic moment when someone goes on national television like that." Clinton, who denied Willey's allegations publicly on Monday, has said all he plans to on the issue, aides said. He did not refer to the controversy while visiting Capitol Hill yesterday to promote his proposed expansion of Medicare eligibility and mark St. Patrick's Day with leaders.
The president's press secretary said the release of the letters was not aimed at maligning Willey, only that, "naturally, we wanted to help Americans understand the fuller context of the story."
But context has its limits in the White House view. McCurry was peppered at his daily briefing with follow-up questions about Willey, and sidestepped nearly every one:
How long have White House attorneys and political advisers been aware of Willey's correspondence with Clinton? Has Clinton had recent conversations with Democratic fund-raiser Nathan Landow, who Willey said tried to persuade her not to tell her story? How did Willey come to be appointed to a non-paying position on an international board to promote nature conservation? Does Clinton dispute Willey's story that the president personally orchestrated her 1993 move from a volunteer position in the White House correspondence office to a slot in the White House social office? How much if any correspondence is there between Clinton and Lewinsky?
To each inquiry, McCurry referred the questioner to James Kennedy, a spokesman for the White House counsel's office. But Kennedy, contacted later, could provide detailed answers to none of these questions.
A Clinton aide said that the president's damage-control team had been waiting for several days before Willey's "60 Minutes" interview for the right time to release her letters to Clinton. But Kennedy would not discuss this, saying he was under orders from lawyers.
"We're not going to be getting into the process and personalities involved," he said. sk
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company