A new team of Clinton defenders takes up the cudgels

December 06, 1996|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- As President Clinton prepares to embark on his second term, the clouds of Whitewater and excessive fund-raising tactics threaten a steady Republican rain on his re-election victory parade.

In preparation for it, Washington lawyer and Maryland political activist Lanny Davis has been recruited as Mr. Clinton's chief damage controller on ethics questions, replacing Mark Fabiani, who is returning to California.

There's always a question about whether that function ought to be carried out inside the White House, particularly if the alleged or suspected ethical breaches involve the personal or campaign activities of a president. But as far back as the administration of Richard Nixon and its defense of Watergate, White House lawyers have overseen such matters.

This administration as long as two years ago attempted to keep the defense of Whitewater as much as possible out of the White House. A longtime Democratic Party operative, former national committeewoman Lynn Cutler of Iowa, and Ann Lewis, later a deputy campaign manager for the Clinton-Gore ticket of 1996, created an organization in 1994 called Back to Business. The title suggested it was time to stop focusing so much attention on the complex Whitewater dealings of the Clintons in Arkansas when they were the state's first couple, and get back to addressing the country's agenda.

A major portion of the group's efforts consisted of doing defensive research and recruiting lawyers and former prosecutors to speak up for the first family against allegations on Whitewater raised in the hearings chaired, often in a partisan atmosphere, by the obstreperous Republican Sen. Al D'Amato of New York.

Ms. Cutler acknowledges that her group had conversations with the White House from time to time but raised its own operating money to defend the first family. The group had little real impact, and last summer, with the re-election campaign unfolding, it folded its tent, letting the Democratic National Committee take over.

Now, however, comes top 1992 Clinton-campaign operative James Carville with a threat of an all-out, ''unauthorized'' assault on the credibility of Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr as a man whose connections with Republican special interests are so conspicuous that he is out to sandbag the Clintons.

Ties to conservatives

Mr. Carville's suspicions about Mr. Starr aren't surprising, considering that he has long been associated with strongly conservative groups and continued to take on legal work from them even as he served as an independent counsel.

Even Ms. Cutler, running essentially a positive defense of the Clintons, on occasion took out after Mr. Starr, charging at one point that he and his team were ''driven by a passion to get the president and the first lady.''

But Ms. Cutler admits now that once Mr. Starr won convictions against two of the president's Whitewater partners, ''much of the momentum was lost'' in the Back to Business effort. And she clearly has doubts about the efficacy of the rambunctious Mr. Carville going after Mr. Starr.

''I think he's really going to have a hard time raising money to do this around the negative,'' she says. ''I had a hard enough time raising it for the positive.'' Opinions expressed so far by other leading Democrats have been mixed, but Democratic Rep. Bill Richardson of New Mexico seemed to express the consensus in saying that ''I have doubts about whether Kenneth Starr is truly nonpartisan, but I don't necessarily agree with making a public offensive against him.''

But Mr. Carville, insisting he's acting entirely on his own, says that if Mr. Starr ''wants to give political speeches and represent enemies of the president, then I'll fight fire with fire.'' The time to have gone after Mr. Starr most strenuously, however, was when he was chosen by a three-judge panel. A campaign against him now, no matter how justified, especially by a man known as a bull in a china shop, is likely to come off as a smoke screen to shield the Clintons.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 12/06/96

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