By Willey's Account By Pete Yost
Associated Press Writer
Monday, March 16, 1998; 5:12 p.m. EST WASHINGTON (AP) -- Stunned by Kathleen Willey's dramatic TV appearance, the White House launched an all-out campaign Monday to discredit her allegation of a crude sexual advance by President Clinton in 1993. ``Nothing improper happened,'' Clinton said.
Aides who helped Clinton survive sexual allegations in the past said privately that Mrs. Willey was the most credible accuser yet, and they were clearly worried about how the public would react to her nationally televised interview.
In a CBS-TV ``60 Minutes'' show watched by nearly 20 million Americans, the soft-spoken former Democratic fund-raiser and ex-White House aide said of her encounter with Clinton, ``I just felt overpowered.''
Clinton's political team anxiously awaited polls on whether Mrs. Willey's allegations would undercut Clinton's approval ratings, which have remained high throughout the Monica Lewinsky investigation.
The question asked throughout Washington and at water coolers across the country: Did you believe her?
House Speaker Newt Gingrich said she was a ``credible witness,'' and he added, ``If it proves to be true, I think it'll have very profound consequences and certainly it should quiet all of those who have been complaining about Judge Starr.''
``I found her credible,'' Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott told reporters. ``But, you know, there is contradictory testimony that has been given, and I presume at some point we'll find more about what the actual truth is.''
Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said, ``I believe him, period.''
Raising questions about Mrs. Willey's statement on ``60 Minutes'' that she felt betrayed by Clinton, the president's lawyers have gathered letters written by her to Clinton after the incident.
In the letters, many signed ``Fondly, Kathleen,'' she requests jobs and a Christmas party invitation and refers to herself as Clinton's ``No. 1 fan.'' Less than a month after the encounter, she wrote to wish him ``a wonderful'' first Christmas in the White House. ``Thank you for the opportunity to work in this great house,'' she wrote.
The letters were released Monday by the White House at the request of The Associated Press.
Mrs. Willey, 51, is a potentially critical witness for Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr, who is investigating whether Clinton had an affair with Ms. Lewinsky and lied about it under oath. Both the president and Mrs. Willey provided sworn testimony in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case; one of them did not tell the truth.
``I told the truth in the deposition,'' Clinton told reporters after an engagement at a Maryland high school. ``I am mystified and disappointed by this turn of events.''
Clinton has said he tried to console Mrs. Willey, who came to the Oval Office in November 1993 with severe finance problems and a request for a full-time job. In his deposition, the president told lawyers that he might have kissed her on the forehead.
With a look of bewilderment, Clinton said Monday that he didn't know why Mrs. Willey would fabricate the charge. ``It's been out there for several months as well as conflicting stories from people who've discussed it with her. So you'll have to find the answer to that riddle yourself,'' he said.
Clinton's advisers, all speaking on condition of anonymity, said they believe the answer lies in Mrs. Willey's money problems or emotional state of mind.
She came to Clinton for help after learning that her husband's finances were failing. Ed Willey, who was under investigation for alleged financial wrongdoing, killed himself the day of the encounter -- without Clinton or Mrs. Willey knowing about it at the time. She still has major money troubles.
White House communications director Ann Lewis appeared on two networks Monday to recall her conversations with Mrs. Willey almost three years after the encounter. ``She was very positive, almost glowing, in her admiration of him and what he had achieved,'' said the Clinton aide.
If Mrs. Willey sent mixed signals, the actions might be explained in her deposition. She tells lawyers that she met with Clinton shortly after the incident and told him she wanted to put the incident behind her. ``I just wanted that to be over,'' she testified. Months later, upon leaving her White House job, she said she met with Clinton again and thanked him for sending her to two international conferences.
Mrs. Willey's TV appearance gave Clinton's lawyers the opportunity to compare it to her deposition and highlight inconsistencies. One example they pointed to: She told ``60 Minutes'' that Clinton kissed her on the lips; in the deposition, she said he tried to kiss her but she couldn't remember if he succeeded.
Yet advisers say Mrs. Willey could pose more problems than Clinton's past accusers. She is a longtime Democrat, not somebody they can label a puppet of the right wing. And she initially told her story reluctantly to attorneys, not to a tabloid like Gennifer Flowers or at a conservative conference like Ms. Jones.
When asked whether Mrs. Willey came across as credible and thoughtful, White House spokesman Mike McCurry said, ``I'm not a TV critic. I've seen a lot of commentary on that and I agree with most of what I've seen.''
The president also must deal with inconsistencies. In August, when Mrs. Willey's account first surfaced, his attorney said the president had ``no specific recollection of meeting'' her. On Monday, the president told reporters, ``I have a very clear memory of the meeting, and I told the truth.''
© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press