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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

White House Interns Kept on Sidelines

Executive mansion: Lewinsky's alleged proximity to president baffles those who also served in unpaid staff. None had any inkling of impropriety.

January 25, 1998|CECILIA BALLI and JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — If President Clinton really gave former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky a dress, a pin and a book of poetry, she was clearly in a class by herself.

The facts are these: Most ambitious college students who land a spot in Washington's most coveted training program are lucky to get an occasional glimpse of the commander in chief, never mind a personal keepsake. And when the time comes to leave the center of government and find a paying job, they are on their own.

In tape-recorded conversations that have generated a political firestorm, Lewinsky allegedly said she exchanged personal gifts with Clinton, talked to him by telephone late at night and carried on an extended sexual affair that began during her internship in the summer and fall of 1995.

Clinton has steadfastly denied having had an improper sexual relationship with Lewinsky, who was 21 when she arrived at the White House. But presidential aides have acknowledged that they helped the young woman get post-internship job offers.

As the drama plays out, other young men and women who have shared the White House internship experience are agog. For many of them, shaking Clinton's hand or petting Socks the cat was the biggest thrill of their semester in Washington.

"The rules of the White House are: If you see President Clinton, Al Gore, any of the big people, you're not supposed to approach them--you're almost supposed to back away," said Corey Stern, who interned with Lewinsky in 1995.

"If you do approach them, a lot of times the Secret Service will intervene, and not nicely," said Stern, a law student at Boston College. "I'm not saying whether or not [an affair] happened; I don't know. I know the only times I met him was in crowds of a lot of people."

While Lewinsky is said to have roamed through the inner sanctums of the West Wing with an exclusive blue access pass around her neck, most interns find themselves dispatched across the street to the Old Executive Office Building.

A typical intern encounters Clinton up close only once--at semester's end when all the students appear with the president in a group photograph.

The Class of '95 photo--featuring Clinton, Lewinsky and several hundred others gathered on the White House grounds--has been reprinted in newspapers from coast to coast in recent days. In the photo, Lewinsky is standing two rows up from the leader of the free world, smiling along with everyone else.

"I didn't know her, but [in] the intern picture I'm seeing all over the news I'm standing right near her, so I know we attended a lot of the same events," said Gabriela Mora, a 1995 intern in the Office of Public Liaison who now works in an East Los Angeles community development project. "I don't remember speaking to her."

None of Lewinsky's fellow interns who were interviewed for this story said they had any inkling that she might have had a special relationship with the boss.

But one woman, who worked in the photo office during the fall of 1995, remembers Lewinsky--and her loopy, girlish handwriting--because she showed up in several snapshots with Clinton and was in a hurry to get copies.

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"It seemed like she liked him a lot, but it wasn't so rare. The kids who wind up doing internships at the White House tend to be sort of in awe of power," said the former intern, who spoke on the condition she not be named. "I remember talking to her after she got hired [in a paid job]. I remember thinking, if she got hired maybe I can too. Now I'm glad I didn't stick around, because it could have been a real mess."

Michael Schneider, a UCLA senior, said he believes Lewinsky was one of the interns who joined him in early August 1995 on the White House grounds in hopes of bumping into Clinton after a meeting.

"The impression I got from her was that she was ecstatic about meeting the president and getting to shake his hand," Schneider said. "If she knew the president well, then she hid it pretty well."

According to reports of the taped conversations, Lewinsky suggests her relationship with Clinton began in November 1995, several months after that handshake. Then, while other interns went their separate ways, Lewinsky stayed on at the White House in a paying job in the Office of Legislative Affairs. In the spring of 1996, Lewinsky was transferred to the Pentagon.

Another ex-intern, Jennifer Kleinert, has difficulty believing the account of the affair Lewinsky is alleged to have given to a friend.

"I just don't think it's feasible," said Kleinert, who attended Beverly Hills High School with Lewinsky but did not know her well.

The president, Kleinert said, "never wandered through the White House without 10 people surrounding him. There was never an opportunity for one-on-one contact. I just don't think it could have happened."

A president-intern liaison seems farfetched to ex-intern Lisa Monaco too. But Monaco acknowledged that Lewinsky probably would have been able to get close to Clinton from her perch in the West Wing office of the White House chief of staff.

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