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Dinner at the White House on a Tumultuous Day

Politics: Clinton friends Janice and Roger Johnson of Laguna Beach attend the event the day scandal breaks.

January 23, 1998|ANN CONWAY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Janice Johnson accepted a White House invitation to dinner, she never imagined she would end up being seated next to the president and consoling him on one of the rockiest days of his presidency.

Johnson of Laguna Beach was among about 120 guests at the Wednesday event celebrating a $27-million endowment raised to preserve the public rooms of the White House.

During the dinner, no formal comment was made about the unfolding allegation that Bill Clinton had been sexually involved with 24-year-old former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

But privately, it was a hot topic.

"The new allegations didn't dampen the evening at all. But, certainly, there was discussion among the president's friends" about the allegations, said Roger Johnson, 63, former chief of the General Services Administration, who attended the event with his wife.

"The discussion, frankly, was more about how appalling the allegations were, that we're sure when this all plays out we'll discover there's nothing more to this than there has been to the other nasty allegations," he said.

At the president's table, Janice Johnson, 63, was seated on Clinton's left. "We talked about Cuba, Chelsea, the new dog and some very personal things," Johnson said. She said she told the president: "You know, the rest of the country doesn't give a diddly about this."

The Johnsons have known the Clintons for about seven years and count them among their friends.

Roger Johnson, who resigned as head of the GSA in 1996, broke with the GOP in endorsing Clinton for president in 1992. Although he later became a Democrat, at one point he was the highest-ranking Republican in the Clinton administration. He was cleared last year of all allegations of ethics violations that clouded his three-year tenure at GSA.

The couple moved back to their Orange County home nearly two years ago. Both are frequent visitors to Pennsylvania Avenue--even spending a wedding anniversary in the Lincoln Bedroom. Janice is a member of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House.

Johnson said she believes Clinton is too "smart of a man" to engage in the behavior that is alleged. "He is very devoted to the country. It has been obvious to me, whatever the country chooses to believe, that he is very close to Hillary and his daughter."

Johnson figures she was chosen to sit beside Clinton because it would give him "comfort" for her to do so.

If First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was disturbed about the new allegations, she did not show it, Johnson said. "She gave a beautiful speech. No one would have guessed that she might have been upset. People have been after this couple from the time of his first term as governor in Arkansas. And they're not going to let up on them ever."

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