It is the question that Americans are asking from coast to coast: Could the same woman who fended off President Clinton’s unwelcome sexual advance, as Kathleen Willey says she did, also subsequently have written the very friendly letters that Willey sent Clinton?
The public, according to the first polls since Willey’s description on CBS’ “60 Minutes” Sunday night of her alleged encounter with Clinton in 1993, appears evenly divided over whom to believe.
While the public’s view is murky, experts say it is not at all implausible that former White House volunteer Willey was the victim of a crude sexual pass by Clinton but continued to pursue a friendly relationship with him.
The White House is attempting to raise questions about Willey’s veracity by releasing a series of chatty correspondence in which she continued to seek favors from Clinton long after the 1993 incident she described in the nationally televised interview.
“On the one hand, she wants to make it clear that she finds the behavior unacceptable,” said Amy Oppenheimer, an attorney in Berkeley, Calif., who trains employers and employees and testifies as an expert in sexual harassment cases. “But on the other hand, she needs to make it clear that she’s not going to betray him, she’s not going to cut off the relationship and she still wants the advantages of knowing him. I think that’s a really understandable reaction.”
Nor do the experts put much stock in the fact that Willey’s attorney tried to sell Willey’s book for $300,000.
California publisher Michael Viner of New Millenium Entertainment, says attorney Dan Gecker approached him two months ago seeking the cash advance for a tell-all autobiography - money, the lawyer told the publisher, that Willey needed to pull herself from debt.
Viner said he ultimately rejected the book proposal Tuesday morning in a conversation with Gecker. The book, Viner said, was to include a section on her allegations against Clinton.
Gecker did not return telephone calls, but he acknowledged to The New York Times that he contacted Viner four or five months ago and Viner told him such a book would be worth “next to nothing.”
In a telephone interview from his Beverly Hills office, Viner said he believed Willey agreed to the “60 Minutes” interview at least in part to attract attention to her story and help her prospects in selling a book about her life’s story.
“My personal view is she went on ‘60 Minutes’ to get out her story in the most favorable possible light and hope that good things might come from that, and a book deal was one of them,” Viner said.
Clinton’s lawyer, Robert Bennett, seized on the book story as further evidence that Willey’s allegations are suspect.
The experts stressed they did not have enough information about Willey to reach a conclusion about the truthfulness of her claim. But they found her account no less believable because she subsequently maintained a relationship with the president.
“He’s the president of the United States. If you have a friendly relationship with him, that’s possible access to a brighter future. If you have a choice between cutting off that relationship or trying to keep it going, many people are going to decide to put out of their minds one appalling incident,” Oppenheimer said. “The American public has done that with President Clinton. We know he’s a philanderer. On the other hand, we like what he is doing for the country; so we’re putting up with him.”
The latest polls reflect that split. Clinton’s job approval ratings remain at lofty levels. In a CBS poll and one conducted by Gallup for CNN and USA Today, Clinton’s job approval rating actually rose in the past week, up 3 percentage points in CBS and 4 points in Gallup to an identical 67 percent.
At the same time, the polls showed voters almost equally split between those who believed Willey’s account and those who accepted Clinton’s denial that anything inappropriate took place. And large majorities say they do not believe the president has high moral standards.
The White House effort to debunk Willey’s story reminded some of the 1991 battle over the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. When Anita Hill, who had formerly worked for Thomas, accused him of sexual harassment, Thomas’ partisans tried to discredit her by pointing out that she had continued to work with him.
One person who saw a parallel between the two cases was Hill herself. Appearing Tuesday morning on the “Today” program on NBC, she took note of the fact that the White House released Willey’s cordial, sometimes gushing letters.
“That was very painful because I know that there will be people who will look at those and automatically determine that because of those contacts, what she says happened didn’t happen,” she said. “I know that that alone is no basis for judging her credibility.”
In both cases, the experts said, the women were following a well-trodden trail by keeping their mouths shut and continuing to hope they could retain professional relationships with the influential men. Wagner, who trains employers to deal with sexual harassment for Cornell University’s school of industrial and labor relations, said victims typically think:
“I don’t want to encourage the behavior, but I don’t necessarily want to discourage interaction, because there are benefits to having a good working relationship.”
“In principle, there’s not necessarily a contradiction” between Willey’s story and her correspondence with the president, Wagner added. “I felt the same way about Anita Hill.”