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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

Clintonites Find Themselves in Dilemma

Support: People who have worked for president have learned to be cautious, says former press aide Dee Dee Myers. She is among the defenders.

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

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

Will men and women who fought for Bill Clinton in the past step bravely before television 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 those accusations, 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, former press secretary in the Clinton White House. 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. "That's certainly been my experience."

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 former campaign aides James Carville and Mandy Grunwald, have also taken to the airwaves to defend the president. Saturday night, White House Communications Director Ann Lewis appeared on CNN's "Larry King Live" to repeat the president's denials.

But others, such as former White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta and former senior aide George Stephanopoulos, have 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 publicly commit themselves.

"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 the president's defense throughout the land. That hasn't happened this time.

Part of the problem has been a simple shortage of useful things to say. The White House says its lawyers are still assembling the facts about Clinton's alleged relationship with Lewinsky. "It's difficult to send out the stuff if it's not all together," said White House political director Douglas B. Sosnik, one official who would normally direct a surrogate effort.

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.

During the 1992 presidential campaign, former nightclub singer Gennifer Flowers declared that she and Clinton had carried on a 12-year 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.

"After the first stunned reaction, people are getting off their butts and coming to help," she said.

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 mused. "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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