• U.S.

Clinton’s Crisis: Sparking The Scandal

4 minute read
David Van Biema

Were it not for her choice in prospective employers, Kathleen Willey’s story might have remained merely a small-bore American tragedy. For decades the vivacious, attractive former flight attendant enjoyed an enviable life. She was wed to an apparently successful real estate lawyer named Edward E. Willey Jr., the son of a powerful Virginia state legislator. The couple, who had two children, skied Vail, drove luxury cars and plied such Democratic social circles as befitted their connections and an occasional $10,000 campaign contribution. For some years, however, arguments over money had frayed the marriage, and on Nov. 28, 1993, everything fell to pieces. Edward stood publicly accused of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars; Kathleen’s name adorned some major promissory notes. They argued bitterly, and the next morning she traveled to Washington to interview for a job that might provide her with an independent income. In her absence, Edward put a bullet through his head.

What made Willey’s (the name rhymes with Millie) case singular was that job interview. An acquaintance says Willey had long flirted harmlessly with Bill Clinton while she was a White House volunteer worker. But last August, Linda Tripp, then an executive assistant in the White House counsel’s office, told Newsweek that on that Nov. 29, things went further. Tripp recalled that she had encountered Willey wandering the West Wing “disheveled. Her face was red, and her lipstick was off. She was flustered, happy and joyful.” Willey then allegedly told Tripp that Clinton had taken her to an office hideaway, kissed and fondled her. The story was consistent with a tale told to Paula Jones’ lawyer Joseph Cammarata by an anonymous caller claiming to be the object of Clinton’s attentions. The caller may not have been Willey–in fact, sources close to Willey believe it was Tripp–but Cammarata eventually tracked the Virginia socialite down and subpoenaed her.

The episode caused a splash, in part because Clinton did help Willey, if modestly: for 10 months she worked as a secretary in the White House counsel’s office, sitting next to Tripp. (Snipes a former lawyer with the office: “She did even less than Linda. She seemed to spend most of her time on the phone.”) Later Willey served, by explicit presidential appointment, as the only non-expert member of U.S. delegations to Copenhagen and Jakarta, unsalaried but comfortably accommodated. Her son Patrick was accepted as a White House intern. Another intriguing point was a seeming gaffe by presidential attorney Robert Bennett. Having dubbed the alleged presidential grope “preposterous” and Tripp “not to be believed,” Bennett suggested that Clinton might have been comforting Willey on her loss, which the media deemed unlikely in light of the assertion by Tripp and at least one other acquaintance that the job interview took place before Willey learned–a day after the suicide–of her husband’s death. In early January, after resisting for months, the widow finally capitulated to the Jones camp’s subpoena and (as reported by the Washington Post) testified under oath that Clinton had kissed and groped her, saying, “I’ve always wanted to do that.” According to ABC News, she described Clinton’s attentions as unwanted, although a Willey acquaintance, agreeing with Tripp, has told TIME that whatever happened in the West Wing that day, it wasn’t “unwelcome.”

Willey still lives outside Richmond, Va., and has refused any comment to the press. Mild public interest in her case was easily overwhelmed last week by the uproar over Monica Lewinsky. But the first story has become an integral part of the second. Among the directives in the mysterious written “talking points” that Tripp says Lewinsky passed along to her is one that proposes, “You now find it completely plausible that [Willey] herself smeared her lipstick, untucked her blouse, etc.” If Kenneth Starr is able to determine that this stage direction was an inducement to perjury on the President’s behalf, Clinton too could come to recall November 1993 with a shudder.

–Reported by Viveca Novak/Washington

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com