WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's tacit admission that he had been lying for months about an affair with a White House intern has left Maryland's Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski painted into a corner.
After Clinton's confession to the nation last week, Mikulski and other prominent Democratic women could no longer afford to ignore entirely the sexual misconduct they have readily condemned in those who did not share their social policy stances. But Mikulski and her colleagues would still rather change the subject.
"The president's statement was a painful admission of a personal and family tragedy," Mikulski said in a statement. "My heart goes out to the Clinton family and those harmed by his conduct and misleading statements.
"I am very disappointed that Mr. Clinton engaged in this unacceptable behavior. It was wrong."
Those comments, offered late last week, came seven months after the first allegations emerged, and they appeared only after public focus had shifted to American missile attacks on sites believed to be used by terrorists.
For three days after Clinton's speech to the nation, Mikulski aides insisted the senator was on vacation and could not be reached. She finally addressed the president's remarks in a statement expressing her support for the missile strike.
Nowhere in Mikulski's words was there the sharp tone of her criticism of Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, who became romantically involved with a civilian while separated from his wife.
Last summer, Mikulski said that adulterous relationship should disqualify Ralston's nomination as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, because it would "very seriously hinder his efforts" to deal with difficult issues of gender and romance in the ranks.
Opposed to Thomas
Along with many of her colleagues, Mikulski also fought the Supreme Court nomination of Justice Clarence Thomas, a conservative Republican who was accused of sexual harassment by a former employee.
As a member of the Senate Ethics Committee, Mikulski led the effort to hold open hearings on the sexual transgressions of Oregon Republican Bob Packwood, who was accused of assaulting some female staff members and taking part in consensual relationships with others.
Packwood was ultimately persuaded to resign from the Senate.
But the allegations involving Clinton that have consumed Washington for the past seven months didn't appear on Mikulski's radar screen, aides said in explaining her silence.
"Here you have a liberal Democrat president doing things that only Neanderthal conservatives are supposed to do," said Benjamin Ginsberg, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University.
"It's much easier [to be critical] when sexual harassment is committed by right-wingers or a general." This time around, he said, "the result is a deafening silence."
Mikulski's reluctance to confront the issue led one of her Republican opponents to criticize her yesterday.
"It is time for her to demand the resignation of this president," said Kenneth L. Wayman, one of several GOP hopefuls vying for their party's Senate nomination. "All Americans must begin to demand moral accountability and a high level of integrity in their elected officials."
Of the six female Democrats in the Senate, four were first elected in 1992, during the so-called "Year of the Woman": Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California, Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, and Patty Murray of Washington.
Boxer, Moseley-Braun and Murray face tough re-election races this fall in states that twice strongly favored Clinton. Boxer's ties are very close: Her daughter married Clinton's brother-in-law.
Only Feinstein, who is not up for re-election, has openly criticized the president and acknowledged a sense of personal betrayal.
"I was present in the Roosevelt Room in January when the president categorically denied any sexual involvement with Monica Lewinsky," Feinstein said after Clinton's speech. "I believed him.
"His remarks leave me with a deep sense of sadness in that my trust in his credibility has been badly shattered."
Hanging out to dry
Among those signaling that they were left hanging out to dry is Ann Lewis, the White House communications director, who had repeatedly denied that any sexual relationship had occurred between Clinton and Lewinsky.
"On this one, it is clear to the nation now that the president misled us," said Lewis, who said she remains proud to work for Clinton. "The question now is, how do you move on?"
Mikulski, who slipped back out of touch after issuing her statement last week, was not available to reflect on that yesterday.
Pub Date: 8/26/98