March 21, 1998 in Nation/World

Sex, Lies And TV As Characters Come And Go, The Seedy Clinton Soap Reads, ‘To Be Continued’

Angie Cannon Knight-Ridder

Kathleen Willey burst on the national stage last Sunday with her explosive “60 Minutes” story about the president groping and kissing her near the Oval Office.

Her story led newspapers across the country. Feminists rallied to her side and lashed out against the president, using powerful words like “sexual assault” and “sexual predator.” Willey appeared to be the president’s worst nightmare coming true.

Then, almost as fast as she exploded, Willey imploded. In less than a week, she went from flash to fizzle.

“It’s been fascinating to watch,” said Phil Bunton, an editor of the tabloid Star Magazine who once entertained thoughts of paying Willey $50,000 for her story. “The public’s perception of Kathleen Willey has probably changed dramatically in the last few days.”

The virtual collapse of Willey’s prominence in the Monica Lewinsky-Paula Jones cases underscores why Clinton, for now, has managed to retain the upper hand politically in his battles with independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

The Jones-Lewinsky-Willey saga has moved with the run-and-gun pace of a political campaign, albeit a negative one. Grand jury appearances, legal filings and press conferences have the elements of staged political events.

“Things come along which punctuate and focus attention,” said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia and an expert on presidential primaries. “The White House then tries to push it aside and then something else comes along.”

But even before the White House tried to push aside the Willey story, the public was collectively looking the other way. Polls taken immediately after the “60 Minutes” interview showed increased doubts about Clinton’s credibility, but his approval numbers remained practically unchanged - and still fairly high.

“This is not shocking news to folks,” Bullock said. “We’ve been hearing about these kinds of things for more than six years.”

As the week progressed, the media measured Willey’s story against the series of friendly and admiring letters she wrote to Clinton after the Oval Office meeting.

The White House adroitly avoided calling Willey a liar, but its release of Willey’s letters clearly implied it. She asked for jobs, an ambassadorship and an invitation to a White House Christmas party. She signed some letters: “Fondly, Kathleen.” And in one, she called herself his “number one fan.”

White House communications director Ann Lewis, who had once argued that Anita Hill’s continued contact with Clarence Thomas did not invalidate her harassment claims, now suggested that Willey’s friendly attitudes toward the president indeed invalidated hers.

Meanwhile, Clinton’s loudest and combative defenders - James Carville and Paul Begala - kept themselves unusually silent.

Willey’s story seemed cheapened by a quest for cash. A Beverly Hills book publisher said that her Richmond, Va., lawyer, Dan Gecker, had been peddling her story for $300,000 to erase Willey’s crushing debts.

The publisher said he backed away from the proposal after the “60 Minutes” interview because it seemed like her story had changed.

Bunton, the Star’s editor, also said Gecker told him Willey would sell her story to the tabloid for $300,000.

And a former friend, Julie Hiatt Steele, released a sworn affidavit in which she alleged that Willey asked her to lie about the encounter with Clinton to a reporter last year.

Then, there was just plain weirdness. Crime novelist Patricia Cornwell told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that Willey showed up at her home after Republican George Allen won the race for Virginia governor in 1993. Cornwell said that Willey was upset because the novelist had withdrawn her support for the Democratic candidate to back Allen and left “a very vicious letter” and a stack of Cornwell’s books on her doorstep.

As the questions mounted in the aftermath of her “60 Minutes” interview, Willey kept quiet. For the most part, so did her lawyer. And that, observers say, also made her story wither away. Gecker’s and Willey’s behavior was in striking contrast to that of Lewinsky and her lawyer, William Ginsburg. Lewinsky has appeared in top restaurants and at a basketball game. Ginsburg has commented frequently about his client on television.

“William Ginsburg was feeding the Monica Lewinsky story,” political scientist Bullock said. “There’s was nobody there to feed the Kathleen Willey story.”

By week’s end, even if the incident did occur as Willey said, her story had faded, weakened by public disinterest and her own disputed credibility. What may have changed most is the perception of what the facts may mean.

“She was very, very credible, a middle-class, well-educated woman who looked different from the other women linked to President Clinton and the scandals,” said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron.

“There was the sense that this matter had been brought to the nation’s attention. But by the end of the week, it hadn’t mattered. The polls hadn’t moved. Her critics, I think, mostly coming out of the White House, had succeeded in raising a number of questions about her story. So it didn’t have the clear impact that it appeared to have in the beginning.”

For his part, tabloid editor Bunton said he’s relieved he didn’t shell out any money for a Willey interview.

“I’m quite glad I saved my money, and we can spend it on Monica Lewinsky when she decides to talk,” Bunton said. The former White House intern’s story, he said, is “certainly worth a million dollars.”

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