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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

Clinton's Trusted Gatekeeper

White House: Personal secretary Betty Currie zealously guards access to the president. Her knowledge places her high on Starr's subpoena list.

January 24, 1998|GLENN F. BUNTING and ALAN C. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — As investigators and White House lawyers gather the facts about any relationship between President Clinton and a former White House intern, few appear to know as many important details as an unassuming career government secretary.

For the last five years, Betty Currie has quietly--and meticulously, aides say--worked from 7:45 a.m. to 7:45 p.m. at her post immediately outside the Oval Office as the personal secretary to the president. Now, Currie, 58, finds herself in the white-hot glare of a Washington controversy in a role that could affect the future of Clinton's presidency.

Currie's duties have included screening the president's mail, escorting guests into the Oval Office and handling both his incoming and outgoing calls. Moreover, Currie is the staff member who frequently cleared the former intern, Monica S. Lewinsky, into the White House, sometimes after work hours, after Lewinsky's internship ended, according to administration officials.

Those visits--specifically whether Lewinsky was there to see the president--loom as a central issue in the unfolding saga. The White House has refused to release details about them.

On Thursday, Currie was subpoenaed by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, who is investigating allegations that the president committed perjury and engaged in a sexual relationship beginning in 1995 with Lewinsky, who was 21 when she began her internship. The same day, the president's close friend and advisor, Vernon E. Jordan Jr., disclosed that he had helped find a job for Lewinsky at Currie's request.

Depending on the facts, Currie could be forced into the difficult position of being asked to provide damaging information about a man she has loyally served and long admired.

Currie could not be reached, and White House officials were tight-lipped Friday regarding her. Calls concerning her were steered to the press office, where officials declined to provide her resume or confirm her salary. But they had only praise for the president's personal secretary.

"She is very dignified, gracious and well-liked," said presidential counselor Douglas B. Sosnik. "I don't know of anyone in the building who dislikes her, nor can I think of any reason in the world that anyone would."

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Currie has retained Washington defense attorney Lawrence H. Wechsler, a White House official said. Wechsler, a former federal prosecutor, did not return phone calls Friday.

Part of Currie's job involves zealously protecting presidential secrets. In his book "Behind the Oval Office," former Clinton political advisor Dick Morris wrote that in early 1995, he frequently communicated with the president using the code name "Charlie" so that no one else in the White House would know about the former Republican consultant's services. Only two employees in the executive mansion were entrusted with knowledge about "Charlie"--Currie and her boss, Nancy Hernreich, Clinton's chief administrative assistant, Morris wrote.

"She is a very trusted person," said one White House official. "When you get paged, 'Call Betty,' it is an important page to return."

Currie worked for 29 years at several federal departments, including the Navy, the Postal Service and ACTION, an agency that included the Peace Corps, before she retired in 1984. In between stints as a staffer on the losing Democratic presidential campaigns of Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and Michael S. Dukakis in 1988, she worked at a Washington department store and did volunteer work. In 1992, she went to Little Rock, Ark., to work for campaign strategist James Carville in the infamous "War Room," the nerve center of the Clinton-Gore campaign.

After Clinton's victory, Currie stayed on in Little Rock as a secretary for Warren Christopher, who headed the transition team. She was named Clinton's personal secretary in January 1993, in part because of her previous Washington experience. Married, with an adult daughter, she is also regarded as extremely competent and unflappable, associates said.

Currie described her job in detail in August during a deposition taken by Senate investigators probing the campaign finance scandal. Although White House lawyers advised her to postpone the session because her brother had been severely beaten and hospitalized the night before, Currie sat through the five-hour grilling without complaint.

Currie told Senate investigators that she read mail and memos addressed to the president and summarized them for him and that gifts or faxes to Clinton usually went through her.

If Clinton wanted to make a phone call from the Oval Office, Currie said, she would likely ask the White House operator to dial the number. Currie would then verify the party's name and inform the president that the person was on the line. She also provided Oval Office tours for guests who slept overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom.

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