By Thomas B. Edsall and Terry M. Neal
Willey's credibility and her apparent lack of an ideological ax to grind have prompted the heads of such groups as the National Organization for Women (NOW), the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) and 9-to-5 to abandon public neutrality and become much more critical of the president.
"I heard her story and this was a woman who sounded credible, who told a story that was compelling and believable," said Kate Michelman, president of NARAL. "This is different from Monica Lewinsky, whose story goes back and forth, and you don't know what to believe. And she [Lewinsky] hasn't indicated any difficulty; whatever happened, she was a willing participant. Kathleen Willey told a different story. She was an unwilling participant."
The White House immediately tried to counter the impression of defections among women. The Democratic National Committee linked reporters with officials of the Women's Leadership Forum (WLF), a Democratic group. "This is what I know: The president issued a very flat denial about Willey's accusation, and I really believe in the president," said Cynthia Friedman, a former national chair of the WLF.
Throughout Clinton's dealing with the sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones and more recently with allegations that he had sex with Lewinsky, a former White House intern, women generally have supported him, and leaders of liberal women's groups have remained neutral on, if not sympathetic to, his plight.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) complained yesterday about what has been "the deafening silence" of women's organizations after their criticism of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and then-Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) in recent years.
Women were crucial to Clinton's 1996 victory and have continued to view him as supportive of their issues. If the election had been conducted only among men, Robert J. Dole would be president, elected by a 1-point margin, 44 percent to 43 percent. Clinton, however, defeated Dole among women by an overwhelming 54 percent to 38 percent.
While cautioning that nothing has been proven, Patricia Ireland, NOW president, spoke as if the weight of evidence was with Willey. "Seeing the interview [with Willey on CBS's '60 Minutes'] was even more compelling than seeing the words on paper [from the Willey deposition]. I have to say she has a great deal of credibility," she said in an interview.
On CNN she said: "If it's true, it's sexual assault. He [Clinton] put his hand on her breast. He put her hand on his erection. . . . Now we're talking about, really, sexual predators and people who in positions of power use that power to take advantage of women."
Ireland still came under fire from the political right, where leaders accused her yesterday of changing her tune because public opinion was likely to shift against Clinton or because NOW members are demanding she take a tough stand. Ireland's statement was made "not out of any concern about what the truth might be but out of a concern with what they [NOW] looked like," said Anita Blair, executive vice president of the Independent Women's Forum.
Susan Carpenter-McMillan, an adviser to Jones, was asked on NBC's "Today" show about Ireland's strong response to Willey after providing "very little support for Paula Jones." Carpenter-McMillan declared that Ireland "has ruined the women's movement. She's ruined the issue of sexual harassment. One more time, we see a pattern of the only women that are going to be defended by Patricia Ireland and the likes are older, more educated Democrats."
Ireland contended that she had tried to contact Jones earlier in the case, but Jones "blew me off" by saying she had to go buy a dress and didn't have time to meet with her.
Michelman said in an interview yesterday that she defends Jones's right to pursue her case, but "I and NARAL are not going to jump on board in response to allegations promoted and funded by groups that have worked hard to deny women their constitutional and legal rights."
In Congress, Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), a longtime Clinton supporter, called Willey's allegations "very serious and very troubling for those of us who have fought so hard against sexual harassment. I am hopeful that the investigation currently underway will conclude swiftly and arrive at the truth. Until then, I am going to withhold judgment."
Anita Perez Ferguson, president of the bipartisan National Women's Political Caucus, said that while she considers the allegations "serious and disturbing," she wanted to remain circumspect. "This is private litigation. It is grand jury testimony. With that in mind, we only have a few pieces of the puzzle."
Similarly, Judith L. Lichtman, president of the Women's Legal Defense Fund, and Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, declined to pass judgment. "I'm too good a lawyer to step into the middle of an investigation," Lichtman said. "Given how important these issues are and the charged atmosphere, it seems especially important to let all the facts come out," Greenberger said.
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
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