The president's distractions Another affair? Clinton's relations with intern are unproved, but allegations eclipse others.

January 23, 1998

"I'VE BEEN living with this sort of thing for a long time. And my experience has been, unfortunately when one charge dies, another one just lifts up to take its place. All the others just faded away."

-- President Clinton Jan. 21, 1998

What, if anything, occurred between the president and former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky remains conjecture.

Allegations that Bill Clinton would risk his presidency for sex with a 21-year-old, and then pressure her to lie under oath to hide it, remain unproved at this stage.

The media and the public all too quickly have forgotten the lessons of a year ago, when false charges were leveled against security guard Richard Jewell for the Olympic bombing in Atlanta and against two Dallas Cowboys football players for a gunpoint rape that proved a fabrication. Sometimes "smoking guns" are just so much dust.

Before we rush to form a damning, premature judgment, let's wait for the facts to come out.

That is not to dismiss the allegations against the president. This development has fixated the public to a degree never reached by the plodding Whitewater probe, the more serious campaign-finance abuses or the cases of Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones.

One can't help but wonder about the motives of Linda R. Tripp, the White House employee who surreptitiously taped teary "confessionals" with Ms. Lewinsky, now 24.

Ms. Tripp, who lives in Columbia, has an uncanny gift for being where the action is. She crossed paths in 1993 with White House volunteer Kathleen E. Willey as Ms. Willey emerged from a restroom disheveled after an alleged advance from the president. Ms. Tripp also said she was the last person to see deputy White House counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr. before he killed himself.

The president's account, on the other hand, is undermined by pieces that don't fit.

If Mr. Clinton gave a dress or gifts to Ms. Lewinsky, why? His reported admission of relations with Ms. Flowers in his deposition Saturday in Ms. Jones' civil suit casts further doubt on his trustworthiness because he denied that affair on television in 1992. Ms. Lewinsky's offer of a job at Revlon Inc., on whose board sits Clinton confidante Vernon Jordan, and her personal job interview with U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson for a low-level post create the impression that her silence was being bought.

None of this relates to the president's governmental responsibilities. While reporters and TV crews hounded the president and his aides yesterday, the White House had other things to contend with, such as Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's visit to Washington and preparation for next week's State of the Union address.

The media crush and the advent of the independent counsel, whose powers can -- frighteningly -- cover everything under the sun, create an atmosphere unlike anything with which past presidents had to contend. The justice system can be perverted for political ends. At this point, however, independent prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr must quickly pursue these allegations to the fullest. The public deserves the truth.

Like all elected officials, presidents deal in two courts: the legal one and the court of public opinion. Mr. Clinton may end up fighting for his political life in both venues, but his uncanny ability to thrive in the court of public opinion is already being put to its greatest test.

Pub Date: 1/23/98

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