Clinton's aides fall into their own trap

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The Independent Online
IF THE White House had hoped playing dirty would deflect the squeamish Washington press corps from the chase after presidential sex scandals, it had another think coming yesterday. The heirs of Watergate heroes Ed Woodward and Carl Bernstein seemed only riled by White House attempts to discredit Kathleen Willey, the woman who claims President Bill Clinton groped her when she went to ask for a job. They vowed to continue their hunt.

There was particular irritation over the copies of letters and telephone logs released by the White House on Monday, less than 24 hours after Ms Willey's television appearance. The 20 handwritten letters, gushingly enthusiastic about Mr Clinton as president, were released in an apparent attempt to show that whatever happened in the Oval Office on 29 November 1993, it had not diminished Ms Willey's devotion to the President. Therefore, the reasoning apparently ran, nothing had happened - or if it did, Ms Willey was happy about it.

If it had been so easy to find and produce these records, reporters asked, what about letters and logs of telephone calls from Monica Lewinsky to the President? Washington reporters have enquired daily about such records ever since allegations two months ago that Mr Clinton had had an affair with the former White House trainee and induced her to lie about it.

Early on in the Lewinsky saga, the New York Times reported that White House visitors' logs showed the former trainee had visited the White House 37 times since she stopped working there in 1996. Some visits had taken place outside normal working hours. Since that leaked information was published, it has never been denied by the White House but neither have records been produced. The chorus from reporters now is: why not?

A series of damaging-limiting television appearances by the White House communications director and Clinton ally Ann Lewis have also come in for criticism. She told several television shows she had personally met Ms Willey when she inquired about helping Mr Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign. Again, the inference was that Ms Willey could not have been so distressed by her 1993 encounter if she wanted to sign up again for the President's campaign. But Ms Lewis's defence has rebounded. Among her qualifications for her White House job, along with her support for Mr Clinton, were her feminist credentials. She had been vocal in her backing for the law professor, Anita Hill, in her epic struggle to prevent Clarence Thomas becoming a Supreme Court judge in 1991 because of alleged sexual harassment. Now, her defence of Ms Hill - in particular her explanation of why Ms Hill took a decade to speak out against Mr Thomas - is being cited against her.

"You have this really prestigious and powerful boss," Ms Lewis told an interviewer seven years ago, "and think you have to stay on the right side of him or for the rest of your working life he could nix another job." Spot the difference between that situation and the situation of Kathleen Willey, challenged the New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd.

The challenge of the White House press corps has appeared to take officials unprepared. The normally unflappable White House spokesman, Mike McCurry, has seemed ill at ease since the weekend, and the usual team of "spinners" has shunned the cameras. Yesterday, the Washington Times, which takes a mostly anti-Clinton line, reported that the decision to produce Ms Willey's letters had been made personally by Mr Clinton, who was now "directing" the attack.

More problematical for Ms Willey was a report that she still needed money and had tried through her lawyer to obtain a $300,000 book contract for an autobiography around the time she made her sworn testimony alleging the incident with Mr Clinton.

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