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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

Aides Debate Best Response to Clinton Sex Allegations

January 24, 1998|JONATHAN PETERSON and ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — White House officials, concerned that President Clinton's public statements about the Oval Office sex allegations have failed to sway the country, scrambled Friday to devise a more effective response. But it remained elusive.

One possible option, albeit far from certain, would be for Clinton to address the explosive problem directly in Tuesday evening's nationally televised State of the Union speech to Congress.

"I'm not predicting," said White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry during a briefing in which he maintained that it was still too early to say what the decision would be.

Other options, each of which presents its own risks, include public remarks in another forum, a formal press conference or targeted interviews. But McCurry said late Friday that no such moves were expected before Tuesday.

"They know what they have to do, which is to make sure that their version of this story is both readily available and understandable, and that it can accommodate both the president's denials and the woman's accusations," said Donald Baer, former White House communications director.

So far, public opinion polls about the controversy remain inconclusive. A Time/CNN poll taken Thursday night found Clinton's approval rating at 52%, down from 59% a week earlier. But other polls showed the rating holding steady.

"There is a large body of public opinion that wants to believe the best about Bill Clinton, that wants to believe these are groundless accusations," said pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. "For a large part of the public, doing a good job counts for more than character."

At the same time, Kohut said, "if these charges turn out to be incontrovertibly true, then the bottom could fall out of Clinton's popularity."

Legal Advisors Urge Cautious Approach

Inside the White House, Clinton's legal advisors appear to have the upper hand, for now at least. They want the president to continue to take a cautious, methodical approach, in which facts are carefully gathered and weighed before public statements are made.

Clinton's political advisors, in contrast, had been weighing the merits of waging a more dramatic counterattack in the next few days, although White House officials insisted the debate has not been acrimonious.

"Lawyers and political people sometimes look at the same screen and see a different picture," acknowledged one high-level aide.

Indeed, every modern president caught in the sudden glare of reported scandal has followed the same basic strategy: Ignore the allegations as long as possible, answer them when necessary, but above all put the emphasis on your determination to focus on the public business.

In the short run, Clinton's public standing may suffer until he makes a full public response to the charges against him, analysts said. But viewed from a longer-term perspective, his lawyers may have good reason to insist that they marshal all the facts of the case before allowing the president to speak.

Presidents Nixon and Reagan both suffered grievous blows to their credibility when their initial statements proved to be misleading.

"There's huge tension between the political people and the press people, who want to get everything out, and the legal people, who want to make sure everything is correct before anything is said," said an experienced outside observer, C. Boyden Gray, who was White House counsel for President Bush. "It's a huge struggle, and usually the legal people win."

This struggle, although it might look troubling on the outside, is actually "normal, expectable and understandable," he said.

Gray's advice to officials in the Clinton White House? They should hide behind the fact that an independent counsel is still investigating the case and refuse to comment.

"We did do that during Iran-Contra. We stopped talking about it. We took it out of the normal routine of the White House," he said. "I think that's what they should do here. It was harder when there was just a civil case. The blessing of the independent counsel is that they can say, 'We can't address this because there's an independent counsel.' "

Using the State of the Union address--the traditional forum for the president to lay out his policy agenda for the year--to defend a president's behavior would be highly unusual. But it is not without precedent: Nixon and Reagan tried to address allegations in their televised addresses to Congress.

Nixon, Reagan Put Defenses in Speech

In 1974, as the Watergate scandal imperiled his presidency, Nixon devoted the concluding section of his State of the Union address to "a personal word" about the problem.

"I believe the time has come to bring that investigation and the other investigations of this matter to an end," Nixon declared. "One year of Watergate is enough."

Thirteen years later, Reagan spoke of his own troubles with the Iran-Contra scandal, which involved a secret plan to provide weapons to Iran in exchange for freeing hostages.

Near the beginning of his State of the Union speech in 1987, Reagan said his administration's goals had not been wrong, but he acknowledged that the strategy had failed and that "serious mistakes were made."

Whatever happens with Clinton's State of the Union address, McCurry said, "we'll have to revisit after Tuesday" the question of how and when the president will respond to remaining questions about the controversy.

"I think he understands that there are some legitimate questions still out there," McCurry noted. "But he understands we've got to get those answers together" before presenting them to the American people.

"So the truth will emerge," he said.

*

Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus contributed to this story.

* ON THE INSIDE--Secretary may know key details. A16

* CLOSED DOORS--Tryst would be difficult, not impossible. A17

* THE DEAL--How Lewinsky was brought into loop. A18

* WORD BY WORD--President's statements get a close look. A18

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