Clinton takes risk, goes on TV show to deny affair

January 27, 1992|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Sun Staff Correspondent Jules Witcover of the Washington Bureau of The Sun contributed to this article.

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- With his presidential candidacy at stake, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton last night denied on national television that he had an affair with a woman who claims he did.

"That allegation is false," Mr. Clinton said on CBS' "60 Minutes."

Mr. Clinton appeared tense as he repeatedly refused to say whether he had ever had an extramarital affair. He and his wife, Hillary, drew a firm line of privacy around their personal lives and criticized the news media for intruding.

Asked whether he believed he had put the issue behind him by appearing on TV, Mr. Clinton said, "That's up to the American people."

The Clintons took the risky step of appearing on television because news coverage of the woman's allegations has effectively paralyzed his campaign.

Polls put him in the lead in the Feb. 18 New Hampshire primary race. But a new voter survey indicates the publicity is undermining that support.

A supermarket tabloid, the Star, quotes Gennifer Flowers, an Arkansas state employee, as saying she had a 12-year affair with the governor. The newspaper paid her an undisclosed amount for her story. Ms.Flowers had previously denied having an affair with him.

The special edition of the 10-minute-long CBS program aired following the Super Bowl last night, with the Clintons hoping they could dispel doubts millions of viewers might have as a result of Ms. Flowers' allegations.

CBS' Steve Kroft repeatedly pressed Mr. Clinton on the question of whether he had ever been unfaithful to his wife.

"I'm not prepared tonight to say that any married couple should ever discuss that with anyone but themselves," Mr. Clinton responded.

Undeterred, Mr. Kroft said, "And the problem with the answer is, it's not a denial."

"People are saying it's really pretty simple, if he's never had an extramarital affair, why doesn't he say it?" Mr. Kroft said.

Mr. Clinton replied: 'That may be what they're saying. . . . I think they're saying he's a guy who's leveled with us."

Mrs. Clinton said: "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 in their marriage. I think it's real dangerous in this country if we don't have some zone of privacy for everybody."

Mr. Clinton expressed confidence that the public would believe him and his wife. He cautioned the news media to be responsible.

"And I think what the press has to decide is: Are we going to engage in a game of 'gotcha'? You know, I can remember a time when a divorced person couldn't run for president, and that time, thank goodness, has passed. 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?"

Mr. Clinton described his relationship with Ms. Flowers, a onetime singer and TV reporter, as "friendly but limited."

"I met her in the late '70s when I was attorney general," he said. "She was one of a number of young people who were working for the television stations around Little Rock. And people in politics knew people in the media, knew each other then just as they do now."

He said she left the state "and for years . . . I didn't really hear from her or know what she was doing. Then she came back sometime a few years ago and went to work again in the state."

Mrs. Clinton was forceful in her responses and at times seemed exasperated: "And I agree with Bill that . . . we don't owe anyone else besides each other the honesty that we've tried to bring as we've worked these problems out."

"You know I'm not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man," 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."

Mr. Clinton said he expected more stories would surface because of the tabloids' willingness to pay for them.

"It was only when money came out, when the tabloids went down there offering people money to say that they had been involved with me, that she changed her story," he said. "There's a recession on. Times are tough, and I think you can expect more and more of these stories as long as they're down there handing out money."

The impact of the "60 Minutes" program will emerge as Mr. Clinton campaigns this week, initially in the South, and faces voters. Yesterday afternoon he told supporters at a campaign stop in Portsmouth he wouldn't talk again about the subject.

"Watch '60 Minutes,' " he said, his voice hoarse.

He was responding to a question about the allegations from someone in the audience at Yoken's Restaurant. The crowd jeered the questioner, with several people yelling, "Nobody cares."

But a number of people present said they did care whether he was telling the truth.

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