Clintons' Lewinsky strategy seems to be to go on offensive First lady is the force behind steely resolve

January 28, 1998|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In the past few days, Bill Clinton has launched nothing less than his third campaign for president of the United States.

The 22nd Amendment prohibits a president from three terms, but with Clinton's presidency on the brink of unraveling over new sexual allegations, he has gone into full battle mode.

He has summoned loyalists with him in the 1992 and 1996 electoral wars, invoked a siege mentality at the White House and turned for guidance to a powerful adviser who has proven indispensable in the past: Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"Everybody says to me, 'How can you be so calm or how can you just, you know, look like you're not upset?' " the first lady told NBC's Matt Lauer, host of the "Today" show. "And I guess I've just been through it so many times. I mean, Bill and I have been accused of everything, including murder, by some of the very same people who are behind these allegations. So from my perspective, this is part of a continuing political campaign against my husband."

In the frenzied week since it became public knowledge that Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr is investigating claims that Clinton had an affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky,Clinton has been besieged by those wanting to know his side of the story.

Clinton has denied having sex with Lewinsky -- and denied her reported tape-recorded claim that Clinton and Vernon Jordan directed her to commit perjury. But the president has refused to address unanswered questions, including the most basic one: What kind of relationship did he have with this young woman?

Initially, the president and his aides vowed to provide complete answers in due time. But over the weekend, they changed direction. Operating on the theory that the best defense is a good offense, the White House is now lashing back at their accusers and painting them as either participants or unwitting tools in a partisan effort to discredit the president.

"I just think that a lot of this is deliberately designed to sensationalize charges against my husband because everything else they've tried has failed," Mrs. Clinton said. "And I also believe it is part of an effort, very frankly, to undo the results of two elections."

Mrs. Clinton's steely resolve, aides say, is providing the inspiration -- and the model -- for the give-no-quarter White House response to the episode. The strategy is to admit nothing and portray the president's troubles as the product of a vast "right-wing" conspiracy.

Perpetrators

According to the first lady, presidential adviser James Carville and other Clinton loyalists, the perpetrators of this conspiracy include: Paula Corbin Jones' lawyers; Starr; conservative publisher Richard Mellon Scaife; the two Republican senators from North Carolina, Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth; Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell; and Internet buccaneer Matt Drudge, who puts out a daily anti-Clinton report.

These Clinton bashers are aided in their efforts, the Clintonites say, by media blinded by their competitive instincts.

"Look at the very people who are involved in this. They have popped up in other settings," Mrs. Clinton said. "The great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president."

The hard-line approach suggests that Clinton might try to weather this furor without ever having to make a full public accounting of his relationship to Lewinsky. Yesterday, top White House adviser Rahm Emanuel said that "as long as we have the independent counsel roaming around," Clinton is constrained from answering questions.

Hours before last night's State of the Union address, Vice President Al Gore went to Capitol Hill to shore up support among congressional Democrats who might be wavering. "It's important that Democrats support the president and his agenda today, tomorrow and in the future," Gore said in a closed-door meeting.

L But a loyalist strategy carries with it some inherent risks.

The first is that if Clinton is proven not to be telling the truth, the voters might punish the Democrats running for Congress. "He's not on the ballot in November, but they are," one prominent Democratic Party activist said yesterday. "Privately, a lot of them think something happened between him and this woman because of what they know about his past."

Secondly, it means portraying Lewinsky not only as a liar and a flirt, but as an unhappy and unstable person whom the president had merely tried to help.

Putting out stories

Already, the White House is putting out stories about Lewinsky. In one, told to Democratic members of Congress, she flew down to Florida on her own nickel, attended a public event and waited three hours in a rope line to greet him. There is also evidence that some White House aides are talking to reporters about Lewinsky's sexual history.

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