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THE STARR REPORT

Clintonites Angry With President but Hang On

Friends: Reactions to Starr report vary as feelings run the gamut. They hope this presidency can be salvaged.

September 12, 1998|JONATHAN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — To President Clinton's most passionate critics, the report from independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr may be cited as cause for impeachment, resignation or congressional censure.

But there is another group of Americans that approaches the latest avalanche of news in the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal with a profoundly different attitude, one that is distinct and bittersweet: They are the president's loyalists, his longtime friends and contributors, linked at the beginning of his presidency by their ardent belief in its promise.

While their reactions to scandal as it is now detailed in the Starr report vary, their feelings often include an uneasy blend of disappointment, sympathy and hope that Clinton can salvage his presidency and complete his term.

"They're angry at him," said a Democrat with social contacts on the California Democratic donor circuit. At the same time, this Democrat added, some view the time, effort and money the Golden State contributors have steered to Clinton "like an investment" that, at this late stage of his presidency, is too late to withdraw.

Those who know Clinton well profess little shock that he would be tempted to carry on a relationship outside his marriage, as Starr's report depicts in lurid detail. But what bewilders some, such as former Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, is that the lifelong politician would engage in behavior that would jeopardize everything he worked to achieve.

"I was in denial for a long time," said Reich, who became friends with Clinton when the two were students on their way to England as Rhodes scholars. He said his "denial" ended with the president's Aug. 17 national confession.

"I couldn't believe he would be so stupid and reckless as to get involved with a 21-year-old White House intern at a time when he was facing a civil suit on sexual harassment, when he has a history of womanizing that has dogged him since the '92 election, when the public has heightened sensitivity about abuse of power by men over female employees. That kind of recklessness is very hard to understand."

To be sure, not all Clinton loyalists have ambivalent feelings about the president's behavior. Some remain totally supportive, and on Friday granted him high grades for the apologetic stance he has adopted in recent days.

"If the people in Washington's attitude is they want to kick the guy when he's down, my attitude is I want to embrace him," said Stephen M. Rivers, a publicist and Clinton contributor active in Hollywood's Democratic circles. "He's been an extraordinary president."

Many of the preliminary readings of the lengthy Starr report led to cautious optimism among some Democratic activists who are relied on by the party as its financial lifeblood.

"There is something of a sense of confidence--I wouldn't say relief--because there were no huge new revelations in the report," said Paul A. Equale, a longtime Democratic activist in Washington and chief executive of the Independent Insurance Agents of America.

But, reflecting the shaky ground under Clinton, Equale tempered his optimism: "Within a few days we'll have a much better fix" on how Congress is reacting to the report, he said.

Other Democratic activists were less measured, expressing all-out support for their beleaguered president. "I think [Clinton] has made his position clear, and I think his apologies have been sincere," said Beth Dozoretz, an active Democratic Party fund-raiser and Clinton donor. "I don't think you negate a lifetime of accomplishment and good work because of one incident."

Clearly, the furor has demoralized some of the president's longtime friends, even as they criticize Starr for being overly zealous and steering the investigation into areas that some believe stray beyond the boundaries of reasonable public interest.

And while many staunch Clintonites believe the president has been the target of a "concerted political effort to destroy his presidency," one longtime friend pointed out that "they [also] would say that, if you know you have enemies in a no-holds-barred fight . . . why would you give them ammunition?"

Times staff writer Alan Miller contributed to this story.

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