After 5 days of sex accusations, no day is ordinary for Clinton Even church sermon provides no escape

January 26, 1998|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Outwardly, it was a normal Super Bowl Sunday: President Clinton prayed in church, rehearsed his State of the Union address for tomorrownight, then kicked back and watched the Super Bowl in the White House with the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.

But five days into an uproar that has rocked the Clinton presidency, nothing at the White House appears ordinary anymore.

Even services at the Foundry United Methodist Church provided no sanctuary. There, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman prefaced his sermon, "Taking Faith Seriously," by noting, "A number of things have been happening this week, and the whole nation and all of us are caught up in it."

Yesterday, the attention of the president and his staff was ensnared by a potentially damaging ABC News report asserting that Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, the 24-year-old former White House intern at the center of the controversy, were witnessed sharing an "intimate" moment in a room in the White House.

White House officials interviewed any official who might have seen or heard of the incident, which is alleged to have taken place in the White House theater.

One aide said, however, that it was becoming clear that Clinton had some sort of "special" relationship with Lewinsky. Clinton has been vague on that point with his advisers -- he acknowledges only a "friendship," one said -- while steadfastly denying that anything of a sexual nature ever took place between them. His aides maintained yesterday that they believe him.

Nonetheless, the ABC report -- though uncorroborated and incomplete -- complicated the White House response yesterday. In fact, it appeared as though the White House efforts were moving in two directions at once -- attacking the Whitewater special prosecutor, Kenneth W. Starr, while adopting a defensive stance on the latest allegations.

"This story is moving faster than it is possible for us to respond to," one senior White House official acknowledged.

As the day progressed, for example, Clinton's spokesman, Mike McCurry, tried to fend off news organizations that told him they were going to air or publish a second part to the ABC story: that the private encounter between Lewinsky and the president was brought to the attention of Leon E. Panetta, then the chief of staff, and that Panetta instructed his deputy, Evelyn Lieberman, to transfer Lewinsky out of the White House to the Pentagon.

After spending the day searching for records and scouring the memories of Panetta and Lieberman, the White House issued a statement that neither Panetta nor Lieberman had ever heard of any such encounter between Lewinsky and Clinton.

"As best we can tell, it was wholly invented," McCurry said. He called the day's events "a feeding frenzy out of control."

Yesterday was the day in which prominent Democratic defenders were to have launched an aggressive counter-attack against their tormentors, chiefly Starr. But as the counteroffensive was beginning, nervous White House lawyers confronted the notion that Starr's investigators were now enlisting the recollections of White House ushers, personal assistants -- perhaps even Secret Service agents -- in the investigation of Clinton's private life.

"If he had any prosecutorial restraint, he wouldn't do that," complained Lanny J. Davis, the White House special counsel. "But look who we're talking about: Ken Starr hasn't shown any restraint."

Friday night, Clinton aides had vowed that the Sunday morning news shows would feature leading national Democrats, not White House political aides. But finding such allies outside the administration proved next to impossible. The talk show lineup featured several White House political aides, like Ann F. Lewis, Rahm Emanuel and Paul Begala, as well as James Carville, a Democratic consultant who was Clinton's closest 1992 campaign hand and may be Starr's most vocal critic.

The problem for these loyalists is that they don't seem to have the answer to the one question that has seized Washington: Did Bill Clinton have any kind of sexual contact with Monica Lewinsky?

"The president of the United States has said clearly, personally, directly, four times, these allegations are false: 'I did not have an improper relationship, I did not have a sexual relationship, I did not tell anyone to lie,' " said Lewis, the communications director.

Asked if they believe these denials, these officials say they do but concede they are relying on little more than their faith in him.

"I've been through a lot with this guy," Begala said. "As we say in Texas, 'This is not my first rodeo.' So I'm like Dale Evans with the Bible: 'God wrote, I believe it, and that settles it.' "

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