WASHINGTON — President Clinton personally recruited veteran political warrior and longtime advisor Mickey Kantor to become his personal counsel as an increasingly isolated White House struggled Saturday for an effective defense against allegations of sexual misconduct that threaten to engulf the Clinton presidency.
Kantor, a prominent Los Angeles attorney and Democratic activist, played a key role in devising the response that saved Clinton's 1992 bid for the presidency when nightclub singer Gennifer Flowers accused the Arkansas governor of having a 12-year affair with her. And it is Kantor's political savvy, more than his legal expertise, that will be tested now.
In the tumultuous week since independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr began investigating claims that 24-year old former intern Monica S. Lewinsky wsas involved sexually with Clinton, the White House has seen its position steadily erode. Aides, hobbled by legal concerns and unsure about the facts, have been unable to counterattack.
And, as senior administration officials noted bitterly on Saturday, efforts to persuade congressional or other prominent Democrats to speak out for Clinton have almost uniformly failed. Indeed, Clinton's own former chief of staff Leon E. Panetta publicly suggested it might be best for Vice President Al Gore to take over if the allegations prove true.
Against this darkening background, there were these other developments:
* Lewinsky's lawyer, William Ginsburg, said negotiations with Starr's office are at a standstill. Ginsburg demanded "complete immunity" from prosecution before Lewinsky will cooperate with the investigation into possible perjury, obstruction of justice or other criminal wrongdoing by Clinton.
"That's my line in the sand," he said.
* New excerpts of Linda Tripp's tapes of Lewinsky, released by Newsweek magazine, show the two women discussing Lewinsky's plan to lie about her relations with Clinton, as well as pressures she was under to cover it up.
Tripp and Lewinsky also allegedly laughed about a ruse for Tripp to fake a "foot accident" and avoid having to give her own sworn testimony about Clinton's affairs.
* Television film was unearthed showing Clinton surrounded by voters at an outdoor rally in November 1996, with a broadly smiling Lewinsky standing right in front of him and then leaning forward for a presidential embrace.
* After a seesaw debate over tactics, the White House decided not to avoid this morning's televisison talk shows but instead to send three politically oriented aides, Rahm Emanuel, Paul Begala and Ann Lewis, before the cameras to defend the president.
The decision to bring Kantor onto the team reflected a realization by Clinton and his inner circle that events, and with them public opinion, were outrunning their efforts to protect themselves.
Not only was almost no prominent figure rising vigorously to the president's defense, but the torrent of leaks about the nature of Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky was so shocking that by Saturday, impeachment and forced resignation were topics of open discussion on television and elsewhere.
"There's nobody for him," one veteran Democratic operative said, reflecting the pervasive gloom. "Even Nixon had a few people for him at the end."
Tacitly acknowledging the downward slide and the difficulty in arresting it, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) offered mild words of support for the president in a CNN television interview but added:
"When the president has not more vigorously challenged those who make these allegations but speaks in terms of legal jargon, it creates a bad situation."
More Than Speed Hinders White House
Said a senior administration official: "We are dealing with a rapidly moving legal situation caused by an extremely aggressive independent counsel. To some extent, the press is moving this story faster that it is possible for us to respond to."
It was not just the speed of press revelations that hampered the White House.
While his lawyers urged caution from the beginning, Clinton's political advisors, at first, argued for prompt disclosure of all the facts--taking it for granted that Clinton, as he had so often in the past, could make his case successfully to the public.
Only gradually have some senior aides come to realize that such disclosure, at a press conference or other public forum, might not be feasible.
"The political people are catching up with the legal people about the facts, and they recognize that the facts may be such that it would be better to wait and see what develops before he goes out" in public, one senior official said later Saturday.
Bringing Kantor aboard, as Clinton did with a face-to-face appeal at the White House on Saturday, is seen by some aides as a potentially important step on the road to recovery.