Clinton camp handles Willey accusations by trying to distract us

March 18, 1998|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The White House is responding to the accusations of Kathleen Willey by throwing sand in our eyes. And, for the moment at least, that strategy appears to be working.

The issue here is straightforward: Is Ms. Willey telling the truth with her charge that President Clinton made a crude sexual advance when she came to his office in 1993 to seek a paying job?

He has denied it again and, absent some eyewitness to what happened just outside the Oval Office that day, we are never going to know for sure.

But Mr. Clinton's agents are taking the accusation seriously enough to mount a full-court attack on Ms. Willey's credibility by producing all those letters and telephone messages to the president from his accuser after the confrontation. On their own, the letters are innocuous enough. But the obvious point is that Ms. Willey wanted to maintain a friendly relationship with Mr. Clinton after the incident, so she could not have been outraged by what he had done.

This argument, however, overlooks some basic elements of the original Willey charge.

First, she said in her television interview that she had seen Mr. Clinton after the episode and had thanked him for helping her get a paying job. It was clear that she was willing to put the incident behind them in the interest of getting work she needed because of family financial problems.

No ulterior motive

Second, Ms. Willey came forward with her story only when

forced to do so by the attorneys for Paula Corbin Jones. There is no evidence she had an agenda of her own that she was trying to pursue.

That is the flaw in the White House reasoning. Why would Ms. Willey make such a charge against the president and subject herself to the notoriety that goes with it?

Logic aside, the early evidence is that the White House offensive is working. The first opinion polls taken after Ms. Willey's appearance on "60 Minutes" found Americans split about evenly on whether they believed Mr. Clinton or Ms. Willey. And, incredibly, the two surveys found that Mr. Clinton's approval ratings on his performance as president increased several points to close to 70 percent.

The White House, of course, has all the best of it when it comes to playing the public relations game. There is, for example, no similar focus on the inconsistencies in Mr. Clinton's account or on the suggestion that Ms. Willey attracted his personal interest long before the episode outside the Oval Office.

Originally, the president had only a vague recollection of the meeting with Ms. Willey, according to his attorney. But as she became specific in her charges, he became dead certain of what had happened when she came to see him. To anyone familiar with Mr. Clinton's extraordinary memory, the second claim makes more sense than the first.

Then there is the story, confirmed by others who were there, that Mr. Clinton showed an interest in Ms. Willey when she was one of the local Democrats who greeted him on his arrival at the airport in Williamsburg, Va., for a 1992 campaign debate. Don Beyer, then the lieutenant governor, says Mr. Clinton asked him for her name.

An invitation

And Ms. Willey said on television that Mr. Clinton telephoned her twice that night at her home in Richmond and invited her to visit him, promising to get rid of the Secret Service agents that surrounded him.

As a practical matter, nothing is likely to come of these differences in accounts. No one knowledgeable about the law imagines that a president is going to be indicted for perjury on the strength of one witness' uncorroborated testimony. The critical issue, and the only one with legal ramifications, is whether anyone acting on Mr. Clinton's behalf tried to pressure Ms. Willey into changing her story. But even an indictment for suborning perjury would require some direct evidence of Mr. Clinton's fingerprints.

The basic questions in the investigation being conducted by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr are still: Did the president lieabout his relationship with Monica Lewinsky? And, second, did he try to get her to lie in her deposition in the Jones lawsuit?

Meanwhile, the White House plays hardball by throwing sand into the eyes of the voters. The only inference you can draw is that Kathleen Willey really struck a nerve.

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

Pub Date: 3/18/98

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