Woman tells of gropes in Oval Office

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BILL CLINTON looked set to experience one of the darkest hours of his presidency last night, when a former White House employee, Kathleen Willey, claimed on prime-time television that he kissed and groped her in the vicinity of the Oval Office four years ago. The alleged incident, originally recounted by Ms Willey in testimony given in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case last year, has been strongly denied by Mr Clinton, including under oath.

Mr Clinton's version is that he did embrace Ms Willey, who - he said - was "extremely agitated", but that there was "nothing sexual" about it. The contested incident occurred on 29 November, 1993.

Don Hewitt, executive producer of the programme, CBS network's flagship "Sixty Minutes", said after recording the interview that Ms Willey, who is now 51, came over as highly credible. Her account occupied 40 minutes of the programme and - unusually for American television - a nine-minute segment was said to have run completely uncut.

Ms Willey was expected to repeat her charges that Mr Clinton embraced her in "more than just a platonic hug", tried to kiss her on the lips, and placed her hand on his genitals, which she said were "aroused". Although the lurid details have figured in US press reports of Ms Willey's accusations in recent days, they gained a new and shocking immediacy by coming from the alleged victim herself.

Additionally devastating for Mr Clinton is that Ms Willey is seen, unlike a number of Mr Clinton's accusers, as a mature woman of good character who has not hitherto sought publicity or redress. With her late husband, she was a fund-raising member of the Democratic Party and an enthusiastic supporter of the President.

Sixty Minutes injected only one element of doubt into Ms Willey's version, producing a woman who said she had been asked by Ms Willey to lie about the Oval Office encounter. But this did little to detract from the emotional force of Ms Willey's first-person account.

The interview came at the end of a weekend that began equally disastrously for the President with the release of a 700-page legal dossier that included the transcripts of statements and testimony given by Ms Willey and four other women who have been linked with Mr Clinton during his political career. The dossier was compiled by lawyers for Paula Jones, the woman who claims Mr Clinton propositioned her for oral sex in an Arkansas hotel room six years ago, in an attempt to demonstrate a "pattern of behaviour" by Mr Clinton.

His approval ratings appeared to be suffering from the remorseless accumulation of charges for the first time.

A poll for the NBC television network, taken before the weekend, showed only just over half of those asked now approving of the President - a drop of more than 10 points over two weeks.