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Outrageous Fortune

The slings and arrows of sex and politics have not dented Clinton's high ratings. Is it a new kind of Teflon, or do foes just lack the right weapon?

By Nancy Gibbs

TIME magazine

(TIME, March 30) -- Here's what we learned in a week when oil prices hit a 10-year low and the stock market broke five records in five days and a woman accused the President of an unwelcome sexual advance: Americans complain that some of the biggest problems facing the country are crime, politicians and the lack of moral values. And yet the most popular leader in the country is a politician who half of us believe, according to a new TIME/CNN poll, "lacks the proper moral character to be President." We'll tolerate extraordinary flaws in a successful President and leave almost no margin for error in a threatening witness. He might even be able to fondle a woman in a hallway near the Oval Office and get away with it if she tried to sell her story, asked for a favor or sent a Christmas card.

These days the President does not just fend off attacks. He absorbs them and grows stronger. A week ago Sunday night, the White House was braced for its worst week since Monica One. Kathleen Willey's story of Clinton's groping her near the Oval Office was widely known, so the fear was not a matter of new details emerging in her 60 Minutes interview. The fear was of flesh and blood, a soft voice, a string of pearls, downcast eyes, violated modesty, the image of a loyal Democrat who when she was in trouble came one November day to the Oval Office seeking help and wound up with a hands-on briefing. Willey's performance was compelling and dangerous: she didn't fit the profile of a Clinton hater, was reluctant to tell her story and looked and sounded a whole lot like a Junior Leaguer. When the President's lawyers and cosmeticians got on the phone afterward to come up with a containment strategy, they didn't need to say anything to one another about how powerful her performance was. "You don't spend a lot of time restating the obvious," said communications chief Ann Lewis, "but it was pretty clear."

There was a time when a story half as ugly as Willey's would have sent aides flying for their aspirin, and their resumes. Now they know better. They've learned a lot about the elasticity of public opinion, because they've pulled and tugged and sampled and studied it like no other White House in history. "There was no panic," said an insider who watched the mobilization. "They just took a deep breath and said, 'Here we go again.'" In the morning the White House sprang its trap. By unleashing a packet of letters and phone records, gifts and invitations from Willey, it went a long way toward clouding her image as a woman mistreated by a rogue President. That evening lawyer Bob Bennett publicized her efforts to snag a fat book contract. Two days later, by coincidence, Willey's onetime friend Julie Steele released her affidavit painting Willey as a liar. Within 48 hours the President was enjoying a reaffirmation of his lofty approval ratings, the public was back enjoying March Madness, and the pundits who had pronounced Clinton dead were once again left staring at an empty tomb.

Just as Clinton market-tested each rivet in his Bridge to the 21st Century, he knows that the liturgy in fat, happy, fin-de-siecle America is "I have to get back to the job the American people hired me to do," meaning cut ribbons on more day-care centers, stare down more foreign despots, wave smelling salts under the nose of woozy Asian markets, challenge the G.O.P. leadership to help Save Social Security First and show just enough outrage and indignation about all these charges that they tumble into a big, deep vat of Unknown and Unknowable Crimes. He said, she said, who really knows, who are we to judge, who are they to judge? Clinton's attackers in Congress, the press and the independent counsel's office are so conflicted, confused and compromised, the President couldn't have chosen his adversaries better. The White House was confident enough by Friday to run the risk of a constitutional crisis, by invoking Executive privilege to keep some of Clinton's top aides out of Ken Starr's line of fire.

Last week's counteroffensive reveals how much the White House has learned about what the market will bear. The polls suggest that at least half of U.S. citizens have already accepted the view that Clinton is a philanderer; White House advisers are breathtakingly cold when they lay out the calculus of his survival. They have discovered, to their cynical surprise, that he can get away with far more than they dreamed. He can fool around as long as he doesn't break any laws, obstruct any justice, force himself on anyone. This was why the Willey story was so scary: she was not, like Monica Lewinsky, telling a girlfriend a giddy love story. She was telling 29 million viewers that he wrapped his arms around her and placed her hand on his groin, a tale troubling enough to make even long-suffering feminist leaders like now president Patricia Ireland warn that if Willey's account was true, it was more than harassment: "It was sexual assault." So it was essential to change the context and shove the encounter back into the realm of what now seems to be acceptable Executive privilege.

All the White House had to do with Willey was put her in the same box as Lewinsky as quickly as possible: she was a fawning groupie; she wanted to be around Clinton whenever she could; and anything that happened between them was perfectly O.K. with her at the time. White House allies in private do not argue the fact that he fondled her--indeed they all but acknowledge it--in making the case that "whatever happened was consensual," as an adviser told TIME. And if that exposes the President to perjury? "It's her word against his," the adviser said. "There's no way you're ever going to prove a perjury call."

Best of all, Willey herself provided some of the weapons the White House used so effectively against her. The released correspondence paints the image of a breathless admirer who both before and after the encounter, right up until a few months ago, was the President's "No. 1 fan." After the fateful meeting on Nov. 29, 1993, when she returned home to find that her husband had shot himself to death, Willey was back on the phone with the President, and telling friends he might come to the funeral. She asked several weeks later if she could come visit and bring a friend. She sent a note about Clinton's D-day speech: "While you have had many shining moments, that day was for me the proudest I have been that you are our President." She sought an ambassadorship, despite being at best a bit player in Virginia politics whose only full-time job had been as a flight attendant.

She cast herself as reluctant to tell her story--which made it harder for her to explain her desire for a hefty book deal. Michael Viner, the Los Angeles publisher known for Hollywood tell-alls, says Willey's lawyer began pitching a book in late January. "Basically she wanted to do a book and get as much money as possible because she had a $300,000 court judgment against her," he said. Viner didn't think there was enough there to support a whole book. Willey's lawyer Daniel Gecker also had discussions with the Star tabloid.

And while she sounded very much like a woman telling the painful truth, Willey is left with some puzzles to explain, including why she lied to a boyfriend about a pregnancy, and why she asked Steele to lie about what she had really said about her encounter with Clinton. A week in which her life was biopsied on the front pages was surely useful to the White House for reminding the other players in the drama that if they shoot at the king, they will do much of the bleeding.

If in the years following the incident Willey didn't act like a Wronged Woman, the President wasn't acting like a Man Behaving Badly. Clinton may have been wary or grateful enough concerning Lewinsky to ask Vernon Jordan to help find her a job; he barely lifted a finger for Willey. She did work briefly in 1994 in the White House counsel's office, but when she approached Ann Lewis about a job in the campaign, doors didn't open. Sources tell TIME that Clinton assistant Nancy Hernreich did telephone Democratic Party finance chairman Marvin Rosen to arrange an interview for her--shades of Betty Currie--but nothing happened. Willey had a specific role in mind: care and feeding of major Democratic donors. When she was offered a far less glamorous role, as a staff aide to the Women's Leadership Forum, she turned the job down, and, friends say, she was angry at not receiving the more important post. She did get to go on two overseas junkets, but that wasn't going to help pay her debts.

Finally, there was another, more intriguing, factor. When the Lewinsky story broke, Clinton played a dummy hand, sitting out the first 48 hours in shock, while his wife plotted a way out. But this time, if the White House can be believed, Clinton was just plain mad. On Saturday night he and his Camp David houseguests watched The Boxer, a dense drama of personal and political pain in Northern Ireland. Then he got on the phone with the trashman, James Carville, who in 1992 ran the war room and commandeered the phrase "speed kills" to express the belief that when you get attacked, you should fire back immediately. Carville does not have much contact with Clinton from week to week, much less day to day, but he is an almost mystical checkpoint for Clinton when it comes to counterattacking. Clinton wondered what Carville thought about releasing the letters. Carville said he thought it was a good idea, though he later noted that it didn't qualify as a nuclear counterstrike. "Releasing 15 letters is hardly an attack," he says.

In any case, it worked. By week's end, by a slight 44-to-41 vote, more Americans believed Clinton's version of events than Willey's, according to a TIME/CNN poll. No group was more persuaded by the avalanche of anti-Willey evidence than the very audience the White House worried about most: middle-class women. The strategy was so successful, it briefly allowed the White House to focus more on Clinton's legal troubles than his political ones, and consider introducing, under seal, evidence of Jones' sexual behavior to counter her new claims of suffering "sexual aversion." But within hours of the plan's leaking, the furor convinced Bennett that it would be better to hold his fire for now.

There was another audience--for Willey, for the White House, for the polls--and that was over on Capitol Hill, where the members are so distracted that there was little legislative action this year--the most prominent was renaming National Airport for Ronald Reagan. Newt Gingrich has had to arbitrate between conservatives who can't wait to sink their teeth into Clinton's soft underbelly and the moderates who are awed by the President's popularity and fear a backlash at the polls. So last week Gingrich floated the idea of a special select committee to look into whether Starr's findings would warrant impeachment. That quickly gave way to the milder notion, favored by Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde, to have a less formal group look at whatever Starr eventually sends up.

Everyone concerned is trying to do the math. Some G.O.P. advisers say the party is well positioned to gain strength in the next election so long as it doesn't get blamed for toppling a popular President and sending all those 401(k) balances into the tank. But others see a risk in doing too little. "You could have a significant slice of our grass-roots activist base go nuts if there's a lot of evidence [against Clinton] and we don't do anything about it," says a G.O.P. aide. "These people are not going to vote Democrat, but these people may not vote. And that's a problem for a lot of members who are facing stiff contests." The G.O.P. strategy now is to take what Starr gives them and then hold a series of so-called informational hearings.

Clinton's plan is to get out of town. Aides have scheduled four overseas trips in the next four months: Africa this week, then South America, Britain and China. Strategists are giving the public as many glimpses as possible of him being President--or at least playing one on TV. "It's not so much words as pictures," says senior adviser Rahm Emanuel. "He's the guy who's got his sleeves rolled up." At the moment, Americans don't seem to care if he has a little mud on those sleeves.

--Reported by Jay Branegan, James Carney, Karen Tumulty and Michael Weisskopf/Washington
In TIME This Week

Cover Date: March 30, 1998

Why Clinton Is Still Buoyant
Outrageous Fortune
The Lives Of Kathleen Willey
Viewpoint: The Trouble With The Present Tense
Africa Rising
Dividing Line: My Dungeon Shook
Courting Controversy
The KGB Of Mississippi
Romancing The Widow?
The Notebook: Primary Colors, Part II

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