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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

Clintonites Find Themselves in Dilemma

Support: People who have worked for president have learned to withhold judgment, says former press aide Myers.

January 25, 1998|DOYLE McMANUS | TIMES WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON — These are the times that try Clintonites' souls.

Will those who fought for President Clinton in the past step bravely before TV cameras to defend his honor now? Or will they hold back for fear they might be caught--as many have before--denying charges that later turn out to be true?

The choice has had many of Clinton's closest associates--people he would normally rely on for help--in a kind of quiet agony ever since the allegations that he had a sexual affair with a former White House intern surfaced last week.

Clinton has denied that charge, along with a related allegation that he played a role in persuading the woman, 24-year-old Monica S. Lewinsky, to lie about their relationship in a sworn statement.

"I want to believe the president," said Dee Dee Myers, Clinton's former press secretary. But she admitted that she doesn't know how far she can.

"People [who worked for Clinton] have learned to be cautious and to withhold judgment one way or the other," she said.

And Myers has been one of the president's defenders in the current crisis. "I'm out there on television trying to slow down this rush to judgment," she noted.

A few other Clintonites, such as White House Communications Director Ann Lewis and former campaign aides James Carville and Mandy Grunwald, have also gone on the air to defend the president.

But others, such as former White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta and former senior aide George Stephanopoulos, have publicly suggested that Clinton may soon face impeachment or resignation--statements that have touched off private fury inside the White House.

And others are simply standing on the sidelines, waiting anxiously for more facts before they commit themselves publicly.

"We're not saying we don't believe him--but we're not coming forth and going to the wall on this because we simply don't know the facts," one longtime Clinton confidant said. "People don't want to look foolish. . . . Many friends and allies have had to take a lot of sarcasm and raised eyebrows defending him."

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Normally, when a president comes under fire, the White House organizes a campaign of "surrogates"--credible supporters who will carry the message of his defense to every corner of the land.

That hasn't happened this time. The president's usual defenders are operating without a strategy, without coordination, without--up to now--a sheet of "talking points" to guide their TV appearances, although there were signs Saturday night that Clinton's aides were about to launch an effort.

Part of the problem has been a shortage of useful things to say. The White House says its lawyers are still assembling the facts about Clinton's alleged relationship with Lewinsky.

But another problem, several Clintonites said, is the president's history of concealing facts from his own supporters--and allowing them to defend him with arguments that later turned out to be flawed.

In his 1992 campaign, for example, Clinton privately assured Stephanopoulos and other aides that he never attempted to avoid the draft. When evidence to the contrary later surfaced, some aides said they felt they had been deceived.

In the same campaign, former nightclub singer Gennifer Flowers declared that she and Clinton had carried on an affair. He denied that in terms that sounded absolute. But last week, a senior White House official backed away from the denial.

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"Friends and allies had been denying [the Flowers affair] on the basis of his assertion over the last six years," the confidant said. ". . . If he [now] conceded he had a sexual relationship with Gennifer Flowers, they don't want to look like a total goofball. They have their own credibility to look after."

Grunwald said she believes that more and more Clintonites will begin rallying to the flag, especially as the White House provides a message they can use.

But even the loyalists are still shaking their heads.

"I want to believe," Myers said, "that he wouldn't jeopardize not only the work of his life, but the work of all the people who have sacrificed for him. To throw it all away for something so ridiculous--I don't want to believe that. . . .

"He is a man of such gigantic talent and such gigantic flaws," she said. "Such is the stuff of tragedy, I guess."

*

Times staff writers Alan C. Miller and Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this story.

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