Willey's credibility is attacked White House releases friendly letters in effort to discredit her

Signed 'Fondly, Kathleen'

Clinton 'mystified'

GOP is cautiously supportive of ex-aide

March 17, 1998|By CARL M. CANNON | CARL M. CANNON,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writers Tom Bowman and David Folkenflik contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON - Reeling from Kathleen Willey's riveting television appearance, the White House launched an organized counterattack yesterday that began at dawn with a salvo from a prominent administration feminist and lasted into the night, when President Clinton's lawyer attacked Willey's credibility on "Larry King Live."

Clinton again denied Willey's allegation that he tried to force himself on her sexually. White House officials, meanwhile, released a packet of friendly letters exchanged between Clinton and Willey, in hopes of undercutting her claim of having been offended by the encounter with Clinton. In one of her subsequent letters to him, Willey calls herself Clinton's "number one fan."

Willey told her story Sunday on an episode of CBS' "60 Minutes" that even Clinton aides said painted a damaging picture of the president. She said she visited Clinton on Nov. 29, 1993, to ask for a paying White House position and instead was fondled by him in a study off the Oval Office.

White House officials conceded that Willey appeared credible and vulnerable, and they were careful not to directly attack the motives of a woman who does not appear to be driven by either ideology or greed. But Clinton's lawyer Robert S. Bennett was less restrained, telling Larry King that Willey's lawyer was hawking a book for his client. Bennett suggested that the possibility of a healthy advance - he mentioned the figure $300,000 - might be a motive for Willey to lie.

Clinton himself played the good cop, saying only that he didn't know why Willey had come forward with such allegations.

"I am mystified and disappointed by this turn of events," Clinton said in a visit to a Silver Spring high school. "You'll have to find the answer to that riddle somewhere else."

The correspondence between the president and Willey did little to make the discrepancy any more understandable.

In the years since the meeting in question, Willey called Clinton at least a dozen times, according to White House records, and wrote to him 15 times. All those letters, most signed "Fondly, Kathleen," are warm in tone.

Most of Willey's handwritten letters offer praise for Clinton, sometimes over a specific speech; several refer to her desire for a job or an invitation to the White House. Less than a month after the episode that she described on "60 Minutes," Willey wished Clinton "a wonderful" first Christmas in Washington, adding: "Thank you for the opportunity to work in this great house."

A year after the Oval Office meeting, she tells Clinton: "You have been on my mind so often this week - there are so very many people who believe in you and what you are trying to do for our country. Take heart in knowing that your number one fan thanks you every day."

In 1996, she wrote asking Clinton for help landing a job on the campaign staff. He wrote back an encouraging note, though Willey never received such a job. Judging by her letter after Clinton's re-election bid, she wasn't bitter.

"Congratulations on your outstanding win on November 5th," Willey wrote. "How fortunate for us all that you will lead us into the 21st century."

Willey's attempts to gain a job on that campaign formed the basis of the initial White House counterpunch yesterday.

White House communications director Ann F. Lewis, a prominent Democratic activist who played a senior role in the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign, took to the morning talk shows to recall how Willey had come to her in search of a campaign job.

"What I saw last night was someone who talked about being angry, feeling that she has been taken advantage of," said Lewis, who is the White House communications director. "And ** yet in 1996, when she was no longer associated with the president or the White House, she came to see me and said, 'I really want to work in this campaign.' There was such a contradiction between what I saw and heard last night and the person I met with in 1996."

In a series of interviews, including one with The Sun, Lewis made the same point.

"I give credit to things I see with my own eyes," she said.

Same defense rejected in'91

But Lewis rejected a similar defense in 1991 when it was offered on behalf of Justice Clarence Thomas. Anita Hill had kept in contact with Thomas, used him as a job reference and followed him from one place of employment - where she said he had sexually harassed her - to another. At the time, Lewis argued that it was naive to use that fact against Hill.

"What was at stake was her economic life," Lewis said then. "That's why women are saying, 'Wait a minute, you guys don't understand.' You don't know what it's like to be a young working woman, to have this really prestigious and powerful boss and think you have to stay on the right side of him, or for the rest of your working life, he could nix another job.'"

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