World

All the President's women

The White House fights back with an attack on Kathleen Willey

ANDREW PHILLIPS March 30 1998
World

All the President's women

The White House fights back with an attack on Kathleen Willey

ANDREW PHILLIPS March 30 1998

All the President's women

World

The White House fights back with an attack on Kathleen Willey

ANDREW PHILLIPS

IN WASHINGTON

Kathleen Willey, it was said last week, is not like all the other women who have come forward with claims that Bill Clinton had sex with them—or at least tried to have sex with them. She does not have big hair, a southern accent, or what the President himself used to call a “come-hither” look. She is a Democrat from an affluent background, a onetime Clinton supporter and a 51-year-old mother of two. All that went far towards explaining why her rivetting account of how the President groped her just outside the Oval Office provoked doubts in his core constituency, and emboldened his opponents to predict the worst. “If it’s true,” pronounced feminist leader Patricia Ireland, “it’s sexual assault.” A Republican senator, Orrin Hatch, went further. If Willey’s tale is true, he said, “I think this presidency will be over.” Surely, went the reasoning, all that would resonate with Americans who so far have given Clinton the benefit of the doubt through months of demeaning sexual allegations. Surely, this time, the dirt would stick.

Actually, not. The President’s stratospheric job-approval ratings edged up yet again. They hit 67 per cent in a CBS Television survey taken immediately after Willey appeared on the network’s news-

magazine, 60 Minutes, to claim that Clinton kissed her and placed her hand on his genitals when she went to him for help in getting a job at the White House. And it was Willey, not Clinton, who was reeling by week’s end. The White House’s vaunted spin machine, in tandem with news organizations obsessed with the sorry saga of presidential sex, moved into action. They drew a very different portrait of her from the sympathetic image she presented to the TV cameras. In quick succession, this happened to Willey:

• The White House released 15 letters and notes she sent to Clinton after their encounter on Nov. 29, 1993. Several were signed, “Fondly, Kathleen.” In one, written a year after the incident, she referred to herself as “your No. 1 fan.” In another, she asked him to consider her “for an ambassadorship or a position in an embassy overseas.” As recently as Nov. 13, 1996, she congratulated Clinton on his re-election and wrote: “How fortunate for us all that you will lead us into the 21st century.”

• A onetime friend of Willey’s, Julie Hiatt Steele, released an affidavit in which she accused Willey of asking her to lie to a reporter about Willey’s meeting with Clinton.

• A publisher, Michael Viner of New Millenium Press, said he had been negotiating with Willey’s lawyer about a book deal that would have included an advance of $142,000. And Phil Bunton, editor of the Star tabloid, said he had been talking with Willey about an exclusive interview. Bunton said he had offered $71,000, but she wanted much more—$426,000.

• Willey’s troubled private life was laid bare, including the suicide of her husband, Ed, on the day other Oval Office session with Clinton. Ed Willey, a lawyer in Richmond, Va., owed hundreds of thousands of dollars to creditors and tax collectors when he died, destroying his widow’s security. Not surprisingly, Kathleen Willey was devastated. It was reported that she was arrested for making threatening phone calls to his business associates, was briefly hospitalized for psychological problems, and recently worked in a bakery and a hair salon. The implication was clear: Willey was desperate for money and might have motives other than her own explanation that “it’s time for the truth to come out.”

No wonder, then, that Willey’s attorney, Daniel Gecker, described her as “overwhelmed” by the torrent of negative information aimed at discrediting her and her story. And no wonder that she had been

so reluctant to give her account, appearing only after lawyers acting for Paula Jones subpoenaed her as a witness in their sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton. Her story, as recounted on 60 Minutes, was compelling. She recalled how she visited Clinton to ask for help after her husband told her he had stolen money from clients and was on the verge of bankruptcy. She was a longtime Clinton supporter and a volunteer in the White House social office at the time, but needed a paying job.

Instead, she said, she found herself fending off an unwanted sexual advance in a narrow corridor just outside the Oval Office. Clinton has said that he was just trying to comfort Willey, and there was nothing sexual about their encounter. But by her account, she had to push him away and even considered slapping him across the face, but “then I thought I should just get out of there.” As she left, she said, “I just could not believe the recklessness of this act. Later on, I think I was feeling angry. I was feeling that I had been taken advantage of.”

Potentially devastating—but the President’s lawyers, spokesmen, investigators and fixers are, by now, well practised at defending him against sexual allegations from women. And with the lessons of dealing with Jones, Gennifer Flowers, Monica Lewinsky and others behind them, they have clearly adopted the principle that the best defence is a good offence. The White House released Willey’s letters—although they have resisted requests for similar material from Lewinsky, the former White House intern at the centre of the sexual storm surrounding Clinton. Robert Bennett, the President’s chief lawyer, argued that there was no sinister motive in releasing the letters. “Before people rush to judgment,” he said, “maybe they should have all the facts.”

Bennett continued the Clinton offensive on other fronts, as well. As part of his effort to have Jones’s lawsuit dismissed before it goes to court as scheduled on May 27 in Little Rock, Ark., he made public some 200 pages of legal documents—including his cross-examination of Willey on Jan. 11. Jones’s legal team had released hundreds of pages of material embarrassing to the President, and it was his lawyers’ turn to get their side of the story on the public record. “Has Mr. Clinton at any time ever offered you any employment or favorable benefits in return for sexual favors?” Bennett asked Willey at one point. “No,” she replied. “Has he ever threatened you that if you didn’t engage in sexual activity with him that somehow you would be penalized?” Bennett continued. Willey’s response again: “No.” The message: whatever happened in the White House on that November day in 1993, Willey neither suffered nor benefitted from it.

It was also Bennett’s chance to undermine the credibility of the Arkansas state troopers who have claimed for several years that they procured women for Clinton while he was governor. The troopers also say Clinton asked them to bring Jones to a hotel room in Little Rock in 1991 where, she claims, he exposed himself to her and asked for oral sex. The White House has argued all along that her lawsuit is a political ploy by rightwing opponents of the President to humiliate him and force him from office. In the papers released last week, Bennett questioned one of the troopers, Larry Patterson, about a conservative conference he attended at a Washington hotel in February, 1994. There, he met leading Republican figures including Newt Gingrich, Oliver North and G. Gordon Liddy. Under Bennett’s questioning, Patterson said that Gingrich, now Speaker of the House of Representatives, told him he was “pleased” that the troopers had accused Clinton of sexual misbehavior, “that we had done the right thing for our country.” The message: the troopers—and Jones—are tools of the right.

More damning for Jones’s case was testimony from the troopers’ supervisor at the time, Raymond (Buddy) Young. He told Bennett that the troopers were actually procuring women for themselves under the guise of representing then-Gov. Clinton. “Any time Bill Clinton had contact with an attractive lady,” said Young, “in Larry Patterson’s mind the objective was to get in her britches. He hustled for himself on a regular dayin, day-out basis.”

The White House’s defence-by-offence against Willey appeared to work. By week’s end, a survey for CNN found that 48 per cent believed she was out for money, 21 per cent thought she wanted to damage Clinton—and only 24 per cent accepted her word that she just wanted the truth to come out. The outcome was sobering for Willey, or any other woman contemplating going public against Clinton. Aware of that potential, Elizabeth Ward Gracen, who was Miss America in 1982 and then starred in the TV series Highlander, has been avoiding a subpoena from Jones’s lawyers since December. A friend of Gracen’s has testified that the actress had a sexual relationship with Clinton in the mid-1980s. Gracen denies that, but is determined not to be drawn into the case. “I don’t want to be a pawn in this whole ugly affair,” she said in a message left for a reporter attempting to contact her. “I do not want to be a party to women being unjustly humiliated in the media and victimized by politicians.” After what happened to Kathleen Willey last week, Gracen may well be wise to stay far away for a long time to come. □