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Clinton’s Crisis: Enablers And Enforcers: The Two White House Cultures

4 minute read
Richard Lacayo

From the first days of the first term, the Clinton White House has been two places. On one side is the First Lady’s operation, which includes Hillary and her immediate staff, a buttoned-down culture in which meetings are brief and businesslike, hallway encounters are pleasantly reserved, and there is regular family time in the evening. And then there’s Bill’s Big Easy. The President is more orderly now than in his first term, when he favored rambling meetings and corridors crowded with young aides. But he’s still Bill Clinton. Even after Hillary has turned in for the night, he’s prone to drift to the West Wing offices–the presidential equivalent of a walk on the wild side–for late-night bull sessions.

All of which means there has always been plenty about Bill’s White House for Hillary’s White House to keep an eye on, a slightly unbuckled atmosphere in which sex, if not exactly a certainty, is not exactly unthinkable. When he went to the White House in 1993 as one of the youngest American Presidents ever, Clinton attracted a flock of aides and interns just out of college: males who regarded mild flirtation as harmless fun, females who seemed to enjoy the attention. And whatever lessons he drew from the Gennifer Flowers embarrassment, Clinton has never felt it necessary to pretend that good-looking women are beyond his notice. Within the first months of his first term, the West Wing was crammed with them, pretty young interns “who had nothing better on their resumes than their good looks,” says a woman who served in a senior policy job. “This is a President who appeals to groupies.”

Some Clinton advisers now wonder if they should have done more to keep a lid on things. For a man with Clinton’s lively libido, the West Wing presented a garden of temptation. Did it lead him over the edge? “It wasn’t that aides arranged this [environment],” says a former official. “It’s that they didn’t do much to stop it. They didn’t want to get cut out or lose their standing, or they feared his blue-temper rages.”

In that provocative climate, the No. 1 keeper of good order was Evelyn Lieberman. A Hillary operative in Bill’s world, she went to the White House in 1993 as the First Lady’s assistant, then moved up three years later to become Clinton’s deputy chief of staff. Until she left that job in December 1996 to head the Voice of America, her White House duties could include anything from arranging furniture to making sure aides had the President’s briefing papers ready. But Lieberman also put a brake on the freewheeling Clinton kids. She would regularly upbraid interns for wearing open-toed shoes or using the upstairs rest room that she wanted reserved for guests. Under her regime, hemlines fell among female interns, and blouses were buttoned. Says an aide: “Evelyn was the enforcer.”

She was a kind of minesweeper too. Ever alert for good-looking female aides who might be hanging around the President too much, Lieberman gave them the boot before they could make trouble. A former White House aide told TIME that in late 1995 and early 1996, senior female staff members working for Lieberman transferred at least two pretty young women to jobs outside the White House because Clinton kept dropping by to flirt. When he “got too chatty with somebody, usually someone with a large chest, a couple of the older women would see she got moved,” says the aide. That’s what happened to Lewinsky. Sources say it was Lieberman who arranged to have the coltish intern transferred to the Pentagon after Lieberman concluded she was spending too much time in the West Wing.

Recovering alcoholics sometimes talk about enablers, the people who help them go on drinking, either by encouraging them outright or by cleaning up after them. When it comes to women, Clinton has had a lifetime of enablers–not just the friends who egged him on but also the ones who helped him sidestep accusations. During the ’92 campaign, aide Betsey Wright used to fend off “bimbo eruptions,” charges about women from his Arkansas days. Senior adviser Bruce Lindsey used to advise flight attendants on the campaign plane to stay out of range of news cameras when Clinton disembarked. If the claims about Lewinsky are true, then what Clinton needed around him was more Evelyn Liebermans and fewer back-slapping buddies and loyal members of his cleanup crew. If it takes a village to raise a child, maybe it takes a circle of complicit friends to help a grown man go on acting like a teenager.

–By Richard Lacayo. Reported by Ann Blackman, Michael Duffy and Douglas Waller/Washington

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