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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

Cautious Feminists Are Parsing Clinton's Policies, Personality

Politics: Supporters strive to separate charges about his private life from his public deeds. But critics call the 'deafening silence' a double standard.

January 27, 1998|FAYE FIORE and ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — This was not supposed to happen. The party that prides itself as the champion of women's issues was not supposed to have its leader accused of adultery in the White House.

The allegations that Bill Clinton was sexually involved with a 22-year-old former White House intern and then asked her to lie about it has plunged his broad support among feminists into potential turmoil. And few are on the horns of a more terrible political dilemma than the high-profile Democratic women who helped propel the president to victory in 1992.

"It's a two-edged sword for us," said Anita Perez Ferguson, president of the National Women's Political Caucus. "We are very disappointed in the allegations, but we are also very busy working on all the good programs this administration has put in place for women."

Rarely have female advocates had to confront such conflicting images of a president. Just last week, the State Department was leading the fight to stop abuse of Afghani women by their government. Then, Monday morning, Clinton announced expanded after-school programs to help solve the national child-care crisis. Also this week, women's organizations are giving the administration their recommendations for spending $15 million won by the Clinton administration to support family planning abroad.

As these front-burner women's issues play out against an explosive backdrop of rumors of infidelity in the Oval Office, many of Clinton's feminist supporters appear to be separating the president's public policy from his private life.

"Here are examples of programs that are administration-driven and are good for women, and at the same time there are these new reports that are very disturbing and that we hope are not true," Ferguson said. "Those are the two sides pulling at us."

'Deafening Silence' Among Feminists

A recent public opinion poll shows 51% of men believe Clinton had an affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, while only 39% of women have concluded the charge is true. This finding suggests that many women who have long been loyal to the president are reserving judgment until the facts come to light.

The same appears true of some of the nation's most powerful female politicians and advocacy groups, who are rising neither to defend nor condemn him. The result, according to a consultant for a Washington public relations firm that handles women's issues, is "a deafening silence."

Several female members of Congress were reluctant to discuss the matter. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), an advocate of women's issues, released a three-sentence statement: "The charges are serious. There is a process underway to gather the facts. I think the appropriate thing is to wait until the facts are in before commenting."

Marian Wright Edelman, executive director of the Children's Defense Fund and an early Clinton supporter, is not commenting on the president's personal problems. "She doesn't speak personally about any national leaders," her office explained.

The National Organization for Women explained in a two-paragraph fax that it is "unable to comment responsibly" about the validity of the charges against Clinton.

Clearly, such groups hope the controversy resolves itself in his favor. "Some people say if we lose [Clinton], we lose everything," the consultant said.

But critics are crying hypocrisy, recalling how seven congresswomen went up the Senate steps in 1991 to support Anita Hill in her charges of sexual harassment against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas--allegations that Thomas, like the president now, vehemently denied. Leading the charge was Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who was then a member of the House.

The critics also note that NOW called for the resignation of Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) only after a number of former employees and other women accused him of sexual harassment.

"There is now overwhelming silence from major women's groups who were so quick to indict Bob Packwood before anything was proven true," said Republican pollster Linda DiVall. She called this "further proof that these groups exist primarily to serve Democratic administrations and the Democratic Party."

But women's advocates say the Hill and Packwood causes were entirely different, involving women who had been denied a forum--Hill by the Senate committee convened to confirm Thomas' nomination to the high court and the Packwood women by a Senate that initially refused to call him to account for his alleged conduct.

"Those cases involved the Senate's judgment," Boxer said. The Clinton matter "is in the hands of the special prosecutor . . . and the country would be better off if political figures kept personal opinions to themselves."

NOW Executive Vice President Kim Gandy contends the group's decision to call for Packwood's ouster was hardly political, given that the senator was an abortion-rights advocate with an exemplary record on women's issues.

No Allegations of Harassment

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