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Commentary | COLUMN LEFT / BILL PRESS

Widow's Tale Is Last Straw for Clinton

Kathleen Willey is believable. The president owes the country an explanation of his behavior.

March 17, 1998|BILL PRESS | Bill Press, a former chairman of the California Democratic Party, is co-host of CNN's "Crossfire."

I believe Kathleen Willey.

She's no lounge singer, trying to become famous. She's no disgruntled state employee, trying to get even. She's no teenage groupie, trying to score, big time.

Kathleen Willey is a mature woman. A woman wearing pearls. A mother. A widow. A Democrat who was devoted to Bill Clinton and his politics. A woman with no agenda, other than, it seems, finally telling the truth.

Yes, there are holes in Willey's story, enough holes to cause serious doubts. Why did Willey volunteer to work for Clinton even after he allegedly made his first, "chicken soup" pass at her? Why did she take a paying job in the White House and continue to work for the president after that Oval Office encounter? Why did she send him at least 10 letters, several signed "fondly," during her White House tenure? Why would she write in December 1994, "Take heart in knowing that your No. 1 fan thinks of you every day"?

Yes, there are holes in Willey's story. But her account of that November 1993 meeting, told so convincingly on "60 Minutes" Sunday, still holds up. Especially in the context of so many other stories, told by so many other women.

I believe Kathleen Willey. And I believe it's time for Bill Clinton to come clean.

So far, both prongs of the White House strategy have been working. First prong: Keep the president quiet, busy about presidential business and above the fray. That strategy has been so successful largely because most Americans are tired of hearing about White House sex scandals. After all, the economy is booming; why rock the boat?

Second prong: Attack Ken Starr. That strategy, too, has been hugely successful, largely because Starr is such a clumsy, thin-skinned, zealous persecutor that he has played right into Clinton's hands. Faced with a thousand possible leads, Starr will pursue each and every one. The only time he ever said no was the one time he should have yes, last year, to a one-way ticket to Malibu.

But no matter how successful so far, the White House strategy has now run out of gas. Willey siphoned every last drop out of the tank. True or not, and I believe it is, her performance on "60 Minutes" was so impressive that it gave the president's opponents what they've yet to come up with on their own: a credible witness. She became the first of Clinton's accusers to go on national television and tell her whole story. Gennifer hasn't; Paula hasn't; Monica hasn't. She was the first deemed believable enough to be granted an interview on "60 Minutes." And, of all the women whose names have been kicked about in the sex stories, she was the first whom the American public got to judge for themselves. They saw her. They heard her. They believed her.

Willey did more damage to Clinton in 45 minutes than Starr has done in four years. Not legal damage. Willey never claimed sexual harassment. And she is too remotely connected to Paula Jones or Monica Lewinsky to assist either case.

No, Willey did not hurt Clinton legally, but she did severely wound him politically. After millions of Americans heard her story, the president became less believable, less likable and less able to carry out the duties of his office.

Like many Democrats, I thought the president could ride this one out. No longer. After Willey, the old contain-and-attack strategy won't work anymore. Neither will the daily, almost incoherent denials by Clinton's attorney, Bob Bennett. There's only one person who can save Clinton's skin now, and it's Clinton himself.

Whatever the forum--whether it's an exclusive interview with Peter Jennings, or an appearance on "Larry King Live," or a follow-up on "60 Minutes," or an address from the Oval Office. Whatever the forum, it's time for Clinton to speak out. It's time for Clinton to tell his side of the story. It's time for an explanation to the American people. And maybe even an apology.

Apparently the president has a problem dealing with women. Apparently his actions have been, on more than one occasion, not illegal, but improper. Or at least perceived and received as such by women. Clearly he has a reputation for reckless behavior.

If there is an explanation, only the president knows it. If there is an apology due, only the president can give it. And soon. Before the next Kathleen Willey comes along.

*

Robert Scheer's column will appear Wednesday.

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