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President Clinton has been commenting as little as possible about the Lewinsky allegations. (AP)

White House Uneasy About Lack of Long-Term Strategy

By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 11, 1998; Page A14

President Clinton, one of his advisers said this week, is a little like the coyote in the old "Roadrunner" cartoons. He has raced off the cliff -- but managed for a moment to keep running on air.

The point, as this aide explained it, is that the coyote did plummet eventually. And many other Clinton advisers, both inside and outside the White House, acknowledge they have the same fear.

Among the Clinton inner circle there is widespread satisfaction -- and no small amount of surprise -- at how well the short-term strategy crafted by Clinton's lawyers and political team in the first days of the Monica Lewinsky controversy has succeeded. By turning away questions, having his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton and lieutenants attack Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, and continuing his schedule as though all was normal, Clinton is prospering politically during the gravest legal threat he has faced during his presidency.

But many Clinton advisers acknowledge that their success in plowing through the frenzied first days of the controversy does not mean they have a long-term strategy. Instead, these people say, White House damage control remains an improvisational, day-to-day affair.

Many advisers, who said they would share their views candidly only on a not-for-attribution basis, expect the next critical moment to come when Starr seeks to hear from Clinton directly about allegations that he carried on a sexual relationship with the former White House intern and then urged her to lie about it.

So far, Starr has not asked Clinton to give a deposition or appear before the grand jury that has been hearing testimony on the allegations. But several Clinton advisers inside and outside the White House say they fully expect such a request -- possibly as early as this month -- and that it will force Clinton to deal with the controversy in ways he has so far avoided.

As a practical matter, several advisers said yesterday, there is little chance Clinton could refuse to appear without antagonizing a public that, according to most polls, has overwhelmingly given Clinton the benefit of the doubt. But once Clinton gives a story to Starr and a grand jury, there will be overwhelming pressure for him to start giving some answers to the public, some advisers say.

So far, he has snubbed such detailed questions as whether and how often he met and called Lewinsky, gave her gifts, or discussed the affidavit she gave in the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit.

"This is driven by public opinion, and if that changes the strategy will change," said one Democrat who speaks regularly with Clinton aides.

Public opinion has already figured critically in Clinton's response. Prior to last week's barrage by Clinton lawyers and various aides about alleged leaks by Starr, White House aides were already in possession of data by presidential pollster Mark Penn showing overwhelming public sentiment for prosecuting Starr if it is shown that he violated confidentiality rules, according to Democratic sources.

In a news conference last week, Clinton cited confidentiality rules in explaining why he couldn't answer questions about his relationship with Lewinsky. Earlier this week, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart acknowledged that, while there is a gag order in the Paula Jones case, there is no legal bar to Clinton telling his story about Lewinsky.

Already, among some White House staff members and outside Democrats who consult with the White House, several of whom have spoken directly with Clinton, there is open speculation about what one called an "alternate story line." This is a way that Clinton, when the time comes, can offer a benign explanation for the close relationship he apparently enjoyed with Lewinsky.

Under one scenario being floated by various Democrats close to the White House, Clinton could try to explain the high-level attention that Lewinsky got from Clinton and his close friend, Vernon E. Jordan Jr., by noting that Lewinsky was close to prominent fund-raiser Walter Kaye, and therefore merited special care.

Under another scenario, which some Democrats said they have urged the president and his advisers to articulate, Clinton would stick by his story that there was no sexual involvement with Lewinsky but acknowledge that he was wrong to get so close to her without understanding that their relationship would be subject to question by outsiders.

One Democrat who consults with the White House on political matters said it is "perfectly plausible" that Clinton might have heard that Lewinsky was spreading fantasized stories about their relationship. Knowing that his reputation would make many people inclined to believe her, this person asserted, Clinton may have taken pains to meet with her last December and instructed Jordan to help her find work.

So far, none of these exculpatory story lines has been offered on anything like an official basis by the White House. But several advisers say this is a matter of time, despite the preference of Clinton lawyers that he stay silent as long as possible.

"Look, at some point he's going to have to tell his story and explain himself," said one Democrat who consults frequently with the White House.

The danger, several advisers said, is that new facts will emerge that Clinton could not explain innocently, and would lead people who have reserved judgment so far to conclude that he lied in his public denials or under oath. While some advisers think the public is willing to accept a measure of dishonesty on sexual matters, others said they fear that conclusive proof of lying still has the potential to destroy his standing.

Speaking with students at Harvard University Monday, White House spokesman Michael McCurry acknowledged as much. "If it turns out what the president has said has not been fair and square with the American people, that has enormous implications."

But McCurry went on to say that the stakes were equally high for those who've reported on the allegations: "If it turns out that much of what has been reported in this environment ends up being not true, the damage that's been done to the institution of the press itself . . . will be grievous."

Still, White House aides express surprise at the public's forbearance so far. One aide said that when the controversy first broke he predicted that as long as Clinton's job approval rating did not drop much below 50 percent there would be no need for him to make any fundamental change in strategy. Some recent polls have placed Clinton nearly 30 percentage points higher than that, leaving him free to assume an above-it-all pose.

Yesterday offered a typical example. In the morning Clinton appeared in the Rose Garden to deliver favorable news from an economic report and reiterate his warnings that a military conflict with Iraq is imminent unless Baghdad gives free access to U.N. weapons inspectors. But at the end of the remarks -- when he usually would stay to answer a few questions from reporters -- Clinton quickly pivoted and walked away.

One part of Clinton's business as usual strategy involves a heavy travel schedule. He goes to Philadelphia on Friday to talk about tobacco legislation, tout his budget proposals for scientific research, and raise money for Democrats. Between now and when he leaves for an Africa trip in late March, Clinton will be on the road an average of more than one day a week, including planned trips to New Jersey, Ohio, and California.

Plainly, the crisis atmosphere that dominated the White House when the Lewinsky story erupted three weeks ago has eased greatly. News briefings, which three weeks ago were jam-packed and carried live by the networks, have thinned out, and the daily round of questions and non-answers has become a predictable routine. Two of Clinton's senior political advisers, Rahm Emanuel and Douglas Sosnik, are sticking with plans to travel with their wives later this week on a Paris vacation.

But even as Clinton's team breathes somewhat easier, some aides confessed they remain watchful. Only Clinton and a small group of lawyers -- including White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff, and private attorneys David Kendall and Mickey Kantor -- are able to ask questions and learn new facts about Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky.

Those helping Clinton respond politically acknowledge that they are at the mercy of new facts that emerge daily. "I don't think there's some kind of long-term road map," said one Clinton political aide.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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