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Clinton Concedes Marital 'Wrongdoing'

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 27, 1992; Page A01

In a bold gamble to shield his presidential candidacy from allegations of marital infidelity, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton asked the American people last night to set aside questions about what he called "wrongdoing" in his marriage and not allow the news media to turn the 1992 campaign into "a game of 'gotcha.' "

Clinton, in an extraordinary interview on CBS News's "60 Minutes" shown after last night's Super Bowl game, denied allegations by Gennifer Flowers, an Arkansas state employee and part-time cabaret singer, that the two had engaged in a 12-year affair. The charges, for which Flowers was paid an undisclosed sum, were carried in the supermarket tabloid Star.

But in denying Flowers's allegation, Clinton admitted that his marriage had not been without problems. "I have acknowledged wrongdoing," Clinton said, seated next to his wife, Hillary, in a hotel suite in Boston. "I have acknowledged causing pain in my marriage. I have said things to you tonight and to the American people from the beginning that no American politician ever has."

Clinton and his wife refused to answer pointed questions from correspondent Steve Kroft about their marriage, and the governor appealed for fairness from the national television audience and the news media. Asked whether he had ever committed adultery, Clinton said, "I'm not prepared tonight to say that any married couple should ever discuss that with anyone but themselves." But he did not deny it.

Recalling an earlier era in politics when a divorced candidate was penalized by the public, Clinton said that today, "Nobody's prejudiced against anybody because they're divorced. Are we going to take the reverse position now that if people have problems in their marriage and there are things in their past which they don't want to discuss, which are painful to them, that they can't run?"

Clinton's decision to go on national television last night to answer charges of marital infidelity represented a high-stakes strategy designed to put the issue of his marriage behind him. In going directly to the voters, Clinton hoped to put pressure on the media not to make an issue of his past behavior.

"I think most Americans who are watching this tonight, they'll know what we're saying, they'll get it, and they'll feel that we have been more candid," Clinton said. "And I think what the press has to decide is: Are we going to engage in a game of 'gotcha'?"

But in giving an interview to the top-rated prime-time show on television, Clinton also risked highlighting the past problems in his marriage to a wider audience of Americans and helped set up the Feb. 18 primary in New Hampshire, where he is the leader in the polls, as a referendum on the issue of his personal life.

"We had to do it," Clinton adviser James Carville said. "We couldn't get our message out. We would never ever have gotten our message out."

Throughout the interview, Hillary Clinton defended her husband and their marriage. "You know, I'm not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette," she said. "I'm sitting here because I love him and I respect him and I honor what he's been through and what we've been through together, and, you know, if that's not enough for people, then heck, don't vote for him."

But she said politicians, no less than other Americans, deserve "a zone of privacy" in their lives. "There isn't a person watching this who would feel comfortable sitting on this couch detailing everything that ever went on in their life or their marriage," she said.

Clinton and his advisers set the strategy in motion after Flowers, who had previously denied having had an affair with Clinton, sold a story asserting a 12-year affair to the Star and major newspapers picked up the allegations, which have never been substantiated.

Newsweek magazine, in its current issue, raised questions about Flowers's credibility, saying she has made a series of misstatements about her past.

The magazine said that while Flowers told the Star she had been a Miss Teenage America and had worked on the television show "Hee Haw," neither was accurate. The magazine also said that University of Arkansas officials said they have no record of her attendance there, even though she told the Star she had completed 50 hours of courses.

Asked whether he believed the Clintons had succeeded in putting the issue to rest, Bill Clinton said, "That's up to the American people and to some extent up to the press. This will test the character of the press. It is not only my character than has been tested."

When Kroft suggested that, despite their past problems, the Clintons had "reached some sort of understanding or arrangement" in their marriage, Clinton broke in: "Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute," he said. "You're looking at two people who love each other. This is not an arrangement or an understanding. This is a marriage. That's a very different thing."

Thursday night, after the Star's latest story broke, Clinton told The Washington Post that he believed he and his wife deserved credit for staying together through difficult times. "If we had just walked away from our marriage, I could be . . . running for president and you wouldn't be here tonight talking to me about this," he said.

The Clintons' performance last night could well determine the fate of his candidacy, but even he admitted that the interview cannot make the issue go away. The Star has promised more details from Flowers. Several Democrats said that if Clinton is caught lying about Flowers or cannot get beyond the issue, his candidacy will be gravely damaged.

Clinton's candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination has been shadowed by rumors of marital infidelity since before he announced in October. Last summer he told reporters he would not answer "Have you ever . . . ?" questions about his marriage. In an effort to blunt the issue, he and his wife met with reporters last September in Washington. Asked about the rumors, the governor said then: "We have been together for almost 20 years and we are committed to each other. It has not been perfect or free from problems, but we are committed to each other, and that ought to be enough."

Until 10 days ago, that appeared to have been enough. But then the Star printed a story about a lawsuit brought by Larry Nichols, a disgruntled Arkansas state employee, which alleged that Clinton had had affairs with several women, including Flowers. On Saturday, Nichols said he would cease efforts to reinstate the lawsuit and said he had no evidence of the affairs.

Although other news organizations, including The Washington Post, had looked into the Nichols suit and found no corroborating evidence, the Star report produced a fresh round of stories in other papers. On Thursday, the Star released the story about Flowers, who a year ago had denied through her lawyer that she had had an affair with Clinton.

Once again Clinton found himself dogged by reporters in New Hampshire, and once he had returned to Arkansas he and his advisers spent Friday discussing how they could confront the issue in a high-profile way and then move on. After considering several offers from television talk shows, they concluded that their best hope was with the biggest audience. The CBS program normally has about 30 million viewers, but a network spokesman said the audience would be much larger after last night's Super Bowl game.

Clinton returned to Little Rock last night to watch the program with his wife and daughter. "It's in the hands of the people now," he said upon arrival. "I've been in rough campaigns before. I never thought I'd see the day when a paid story would make its way into the legitimate press."

The taping took nearly an hour yesterday, and at one point a lighting structure fell down and nearly hit Hillary Clinton. She was not hurt. She returned immediately to Arkansas while Clinton campaigned briefly in New Hampshire. Asked about the Flowers allegations, he said, "Watch '60 Minutes.' I've said all I'm going to say and I'm not going to say any more."

Staff writers Bill McAllister in Little Rock and David Von Drehle in New Hampshire and researcher Mark Stencel contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1992 The Washington Post Company

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