Democratic women plan defense of Hillary Clinton

March 29, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- A group of Democratic women, tied by politics to the White House but purposefully steering clear of direct administration influence, has begun a campaign to defend Hillary Rodham Clinton against attacks arising from her role in the Whitewater affair.

The women, some of whom have expressed frustration among themselves about Mrs. Clinton's choice not to speak out vigorously on her own behalf, have been meeting for a month in Washington to plot ways to strike back at what they consider unfair press coverage and partisan assault.

At meetings among Democrats around the country, they have been distributing lapel stickers that read, "Don't pillory Hillary."

In the weeks ahead, they plan to begin writing letters to newspaper editorial pages, telephoning radio talk programs and appearing on television to assert that Mrs. Clinton has come under attack because she is an untraditional first lady who wields unusual power.

As its first step into the arena of national opinion, the informal group has bought a full-page advertisement in today's editions of the New York Times that likens Mrs. Clinton to Eleanor Roosevelt and disputes several accusations central to the Whitewater inquiry.

The advertisement was paid for with $50,000 in donations from individuals around the country.

The defense of Mrs. Clinton has been coordinated by Lynn Cutler and Ann F. Lewis, two consultants in Washington with long ties to the Democratic Party.

Joanne Woodward

The group has grown to include Clinton supporters like Susan Thomases, a New York lawyer and Clinton campaign expert on damage control; Joanne Woodward, the actress; Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the writer, and a few men, including Tony Randall, the actor, and Michael D. Barnes and Tony Coelho, both former members of Congress.

Specifically not included on the list are current elected officials 00 and members of the Clinton administration.

Organizers have taken pains to keep the defense effort officially independent of the White House image-making operation.

Organizers concede that there have been "after hours" conversations about the matter with White House officials. "Running a full-page ad is not exactly a secret strategy," Ms. Lewis said.

But Ms. Lewis, Ms. Cutler and Clinton advisers who said they knew nothing of the campaign played down such influence, saying their participation would only taint an otherwise spontaneous effort. One aide said Mrs. Clinton was unaware of the campaign being conducted in her behalf.

Ms. Cutler said that Mrs. Clinton's defenders had been almost entirely absent in responding to what she and others term "Hillary bashing," particularly in the lively world of television and radio call-in programs.

"These people have right-wing scripts in their hands when they call," she said of those criticizing Mrs. Clinton. "They're all over this thing like hot butter on toast."

The effort to rescue Mrs. Clinton from the Whitewater whirlpool began as many Washington efforts do -- at a political cocktail party. It continued around a conference table at the Kamber Group, a downtown consulting firm, and flourished in the chatter of daily conversation at various political meetings.

Sacha Milstone, a stockbroker who does not know Mrs. Clinton personally, said she felt it was past time that Mrs. Clinton's admirers spoke up in her behalf.

"More criticism has been heaped on them than is deserved," Ms. Milstone said. "Some criticism is deserved, but not at the noise level that has been reached."

'It upsets me'

"It upsets me to no end that a relatively insignificant thing that happened in 1978 that was poorly handled in 1992 and 1993 has come to dominate the discussion every weekend," Ms. Milstone said, referring to weekend talk programs.

But some supporters also worry that Mrs. Clinton has done too little to promote her own cause. She has offered terse, almost offhand, responses to reporters' questions while she has traveled the country on behalf of the administration's proposals to overhaul the health care system.

The White House said last night that it was considering releasing more information about a commodities investment that netted Mrs. Clinton approximately $100,000 in 1978-1979.

The deal was made with the help and advice of a Clinton confidant, James B. Blair, who was the top lawyer for Tysons Foods Inc., one of the most powerful and heavily regulated companies in Arkansas.

Dee Dee Myers, the White House spokeswoman, did not say what information the the administration had in mind.

Mrs. Clinton has avoided offering any lengthy formal responses to accounts of that arrangement or the Whitewater deal. That has been left to her husband, who has praised her integrity, defended her investments and, at last week's news conference, asserted that reporters could get answers to their questions by simply calling Mrs. Clinton and asking her.

NBC reporter cut off

That proved less than so the very next day, when NBC News reported that Mrs. Clinton cut off questioning from one of its reporters who was asking her about Whitewater instead of health care.

White House officials say Mrs. Clinton did not answer the Whitewater question because of a technical problem with the satellite transmission and had responded to other questions about it earlier that day.

But the women who are trying to patch up the damage done to Mrs. Clinton's reputation, as recorded in sliding opinion polls, are also waiting for the White House to act more aggressively in defending Mrs. Clinton.

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