Clinton takes risk, goes on TV show to deny affair CAMPAIGN '92

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. -- His presidential candidacy at stake, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton went on national television last night to deny that he had an affair with a woman who claims they 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, acknowledged problems in their 16-year marriage but refused to specify them, drawing a line of privacy around their personal lives and criticizing the news media for intruding.

Viewers, who had just seen a one-sided Super Bowl, witnessed a spirited 10-minute contest between the Clintons and CBS' Steve Kroft over the public's right to know intimate details of candidates' lives.

And it was left to the audience to decide who had won.

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 and to some extent the press."

"This will test the character of the press," he added. "It's not only my character that's being tested."

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

Polls put him in the lead in the Feb. 18 New Hampshire primaryrace. 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.

Mr. Kroft repeatedly pressed Mr. Clinton on the question of whether he had ever been unfaithful to his wife. He said a CBS poll showed that 14 percent of registered voters wouldn't vote for a candidate guilty of infidelity.

"I know it's an issue," Mr. Clinton said. But, referring to the poll, he said that means 86 percent "either don't think it's relevant to presidential performance or look at whether a person, looking at all of the facts, is the best person to serve."

Mrs. Clinton forcefully backed her husband.

"We've gone further than anybody we know and that's all we're going to say," she said. "And people can ask us 100 different ways, from 100 different directions and we're just going to leave the ultimate decision up to the American people."

When Mr. Kroft said it was admirable that the couple had worked out their problems and "reached some sort of understanding and arrangement," Mr. Clinton angrily interrupted.

"Wait a minute, wait a minute," he said, leaning forward. "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."

Mrs. Clinton then added, defiantly, "You know I'm not sitting here some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette. I'm sitting 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."

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. If he had affairs in the past, they'd overlook that, several people said. If he was still having affairs or was lying about his past, they said he'd lose their trust.

"Well, it doesn't have any importance for me," said Lorraine Laroche of Portsmouth, referring to the allegations.

"The past is past. And if his wife is happy with the situation with him, it's past. So it won't affect my vote. And I sincerely hope he wins it."

Her husband, Arthur, agreed. "If it's current affairs, that's one thing," he said. "Then you're dealing with integrity, which affects every other characteristic."

A number of supporters also said that while they're sticking with him they'd take his advice and watch the program. "I think '60 Minutes' is really going to be the make or break for Clinton," said Curt Bartlett.

Mr. Kroft repeatedly tried to force Mr. Clinton to say whether he had ever had an affair, at one point using the word adultery.

"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.

The presidential hopeful replied: "That may be what they're saying . . . I think they're saying he's a guy who's leveled with

us."

4 Mr. Clinton did not term his responses a denial.

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