Clinton's Teflon Is Tested Yet Again

New allegations of sexual misconduct put president on defensive, but their impact remains unclear.

The confusing case of Bill Clinton and his many accusers is suddenly refocused on core issues: allegations about what the president did, and when he did it.

For weeks, the White House has been on the offensive against independent counsel Kenneth Starr and Paula Jones and her lawyers, questioning their motives and dismissing their charges as political. Missteps on the part of Mr. Starr have aided this strategy. His subpoena of a White House aide suspected of passing critical information about prosecutors earned only hoots inside the Beltway.

Now the camera, and the pen, have turned. An extraordinary, concentrated release of salacious charges about Mr. Clinton's actions toward women appears to have put the White House back on the defensive. But he has pulled himself back from similar brinks before, and he may do so again.

One reason: The legal implications of the new public information cut in two directions. The lurid documents released by Paula Jones's lawyers, for instance, may do little to bolster her own sexual-harassment case against the president. But they may provide bits of information that could help Whitewater prosecutor Starr build his perjury and obstruction of justice cases.

Still, the coming days and weeks will surely be important ones for the president personally, and his administration as a whole. White House officials will be watching nervously to see if the new charges cause Clinton's popularity ratings to break and start sliding south. A federal judge will rule whether the Jones case is strong enough to proceed to its scheduled May trial.

"We've really reached much more of a crisis point," says Virginia Tech presidential expert Robert Denton. "In terms of the administration's historical significance this is a crucial time."

As far as the public is concerned, the most important scandal-related event of the past few days may be the appearance of a new accuser: Kathleen Willey.

In an appearance on the CBS television news show "60 Minutes," Ms. Willey charged that the president made an inappropriate advance to her during a November 1993 White House meeting.

Her account is important for a number of reasons. From a political point of view, her charges could be more damaging than those of Paula Jones.

Unlike Ms. Jones, Ms. Willey was initially a reluctant witness against the president. And she is a longtime Democrat unassociated with the confirmed Clinton opponents who are helping the Jones case.

From a legal point of view, Willey testified that the president's alleged advances were unwanted. Former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, in conversations recorded by her (then) friend Linda Tripp, discussed a consensual relationship with the president. And of course, Ms. Lewinsky has not recanted previous sworn testimony that she had no untoward relationship with Clinton.

Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi, among others, said that he found the soft-spoken Willey credible. Her appearance may humanize charges that to this point have come largely on paper. In what could be an important crack in Clinton's support, some feminist leaders have begun openly musing about her charges.

"If it's true, it's sexual assault," said Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women.

Willey is not a witness without problems, however. A friend of hers, Julie Hiatt Steele, has said that Willey asked her to lie in corroboration of her harassment story. And Willey's account of the Clinton incident differs in one important respect from that of another presidential opponent, Ms. Tripp, who said Willey seemed "joyful" about the alleged encounter.

All this points out a general weakness in the allegations made so far against the president: lack of corroborating evidence. Both Jones and Willey are in a "he said, she said" situation with regard to Clinton, who vigorously denies their allegations.

Legally, such cases are difficult for plaintiffs to win.

"It is coming down to one side claiming a version of the facts, and another side claiming another," says Michael Johnston, a political scientist and political corruption specialist at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y.

Still, many experts believe that the next important turn in the Clinton drama - the Paula Jones trial - will take place in late May as scheduled.

That does not mean she has a strong case. Because of the nature of her charges, Jones must prove not just that she was the recipient of an unwelcome sexual advance, but also that her job prospects were damaged as a result of rejecting it. Yet she continued to work in Arkansas state government, and received raises and good reviews, after the alleged Clinton encounter.

The hundreds of pages of documents her legal team has released, including information dealing with Lewinsky, Willey, and other women alleged to have been recipients of presidential attentions, are thus not entirely relevant to the core of the Jones charges, say some experts. But US District Judge Susan Webber Wright in Little Rock, Ark., is unlikely to dismiss the case out of hand and deprive such a high-profile plaintiff of her day in court, with its resultant important effect on public opinion.

During the trial "is when the critical issue about how much Teflon [Clinton] has left will be seen," says Colgate's Mr. Johnston.

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