White House blunts damage caused by Willey Clinton people feared her testimony the most

March 22, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Staff writer Carl M. Cannon contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Last Sunday, the White House feared that the sex scandal it had so far successfully contained was about to explode as the nation heard allegations of sexual misconduct by President Clinton from a witness decidedly sympathetic, compelling, believable -- and even a Democratic ally.

One week later, Kathleen Willey's graphic and riveting story, told on national television in a soft and halting voice, has indeed caused much fallout -- but many of the doubts and questions about credibility are now being directed at her.

Through a combination of intense White House damage control and Willey's own actions -- details of which emerged last week in the days after her "60 Minutes" appearance -- the severe blow to Clinton's credibility and integrity expected by the Willey allegations has been greatly, perhaps totally, blunted.

And Willey, the former White House volunteer and Virginia socialite who said she rebuffed an unwelcome pass by Clinton in November 1993, has been transformed in the public's mind from a poised and classy Clinton ally with no reason to lie -- perhaps the most damaging witness for Clinton -- into a questionable witness possibly motivated by money.

By the end of last week -- a week that started with dramatic headlines, feminists rallying to Willey's side and increased doubts about Clinton's conduct and truthfulness -- nearly half of all Americans said they thought Willey was motivated by personal or financial gain, according to polls.

"This was truly rapid response," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst and senior associate at Claremont Graduate University in California. "The defensive the White House put forth was truly quite something. Kathleen Willey didn't appear at all unstable, but by the end of the week, the White House had managed to raise questions about her along those lines.

"I think most people are totally confused. And I think she is just reeling and not yet able to respond. This is a woman who's really been thrown off balance. Rightly or wrongly, that's what happened."

After the "60 Minutes" interview, Willey and her lawyer, Daniel Gecker, have said little, in stark contrast to Clinton allies who have been out in full force, from the "Today" show to "Nightline." Gecker, of Richmond, Va., did not return phone calls for this article.

Clinton was quick to deny Willey's accusations last week. His lawyer, Robert S. Bennett, denounced the "60 Minutes" interview as one-sided and unfair, and the White House immediately went to work putting its spin on Willey's image and motivations.

In an effort to cast doubt on her story that she was shocked and horrified that Clinton groped and kissed her when she met with him in the Oval Office, the White House released cordial letters she wrote to him after the meeting in which Willey called herself his "number one fan" and signed them, "Fondly, Kathleen."

In a portion of Willey's January deposition, released with court documents filed Friday by Bennett, Willey confirmed that she went to see Clinton in the Oval Office several times after the alleged incident.

But if the letters and contacts did little to discredit Willey, the next round of revelations had a more dramatic effect.

In an appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live" one night after Willey's "60 Minutes" interview, Bennett disclosed Willey's interest in a book deal.

Reporters found that Willey had been told by a court last summer that she was responsible for a $274,500 debt that her husband, who had committed suicide, owed a client; that around the time Willey testified in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case, her lawyer was seeking a book deal for her paying at least $300,000, and that her lawyer had conversations, too, with the Star tabloid.

"I do not believe writing a book or selling a book necessarily makes one not a truth-teller," Bennett said Friday at a news conference. "But I think the American people have a right to know that Ms. Willey was trying for several months, according to her lawyer, to sell a book."

Adding to the tarnish on Willey's image, Julie Hiatt Steele, a former Willey friend, released a sworn affidavit Wednesday night accusing Willey of asking her to lie to corroborate her story of Clinton's unwelcome sexual advance.

Willey, whose charges are of interest now to Jones' lawyers as well as to Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, was not initially eager to go public with her story.

She sought, unsuccessfully, to quash the subpoena sent to her in June by Jones' lawyers who wanted to establish a pattern of behavior by Clinton that would support Jones' claim of sexual misconduct.

Although the Clinton team dismisses her story as false, the president's lawyers and advisers have long been concerned about the Virginia woman who first met Clinton in the late 1980s.

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