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White House Plans Blitz to Defend Clintons : Public relations: Campaign is also aimed at keeping Whitewater controversy from hurting President’s agenda.

TIMES WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

White House officials, concerned that the Whitewater case will remain a vexing issue, have launched a public relations blitz to defend President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and to keep the controversy from interfering with the President’s congressional agenda.

Both Clintons feel an obligation to continue responding to questions about the Whitewater matter and plan to take a leading role in the campaign after returning to Washington this weekend from a weeklong vacation, senior White House aides said Wednesday.

The Clintons will travel to various cities next week promoting health care reform and other legislative goals while also responding to queries about the land deal controversy, the aides said. In addition, Cabinet secretaries and Democratic members of Congress plan to participate in 70 different “events” related to the legislative agenda.

The message of the public relations campaign, officials indicated, will be that the Clintons are being fully responsive to Whitewater questions and that the American people do not want the controversy to become an excuse for the legislative gridlock that has characterized Washington in recent years.

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“I think a lot of the concern we have in the country about Whitewater arises more in the question of whether it’s going to disrupt government than what may have happened 15 or 16 years ago” in the Whitewater controversy, said presidential counselor David Gergen.

That message, said Gergen, who served as an aide to Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, also has been heard by “a lot of Republicans” who are now talking about seeking bipartisan answers to important policy issues. Among them, he said, are House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) and House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Gergen and two other senior White House aides--Chief of Staff Thomas (Mack) McLarty and congressional liaison official Pat Griffin--discussed the Administration’s plans to defend Clinton and promote his policies at a breakfast session with a large group of Washington journalists.

Asked if Hillary Clinton has the same obligation as the President to respond to Whitewater questions, Gergen said she already has fully disclosed how she parlayed a $1,000 investment in commodities futures into a $100,000 profit in the late 1970s.

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“I think she feels it’s important to be responsive” to questions about Whitewater, he said.

The Whitewater label has come to embrace not only the Clintons’ failed real estate investment in Whitewater Development Corp. in Arkansas and White House meetings that may have been intended to protect the Clintons from the controversy, but also questions about Hillary Clinton’s financial affairs and her role as a Little Rock, Ark., lawyer.

The First Lady has been widely criticized for not being more forthcoming, but Gergen noted that in the last two weeks she has granted interviews to two news magazines and has answered questions five different times during travels outside of Washington.

Asked whether the mandate of Whitewater special counsel Robert B. Fiske Jr. might be broad enough to include Hillary Clinton’s commodities trading, McLarty said Fiske has a reputation for thoroughness “and I would not be surprised if he included that in his reviews.”

White House aides insisted that, despite the Whitewater controversy, Clinton’s legislative goals remain on track. However, McLarty said the continuing furor tends to make people equate the Whitewater matter with gridlock and make them lose “a sense of, perhaps, optimism in the future.”

People want the Whitewater matter resolved, he said, but that probably will take “some period of months” until Fiske finishes his work and makes a final report. “I think that’s ultimately the way to get to the conclusion, and we just will have to endure that and march right on through it.”

Griffin, who only recently became Clinton’s chief assistant for congressional relations, denied reports that the Whitewater matter has already adversely affected the President’s agenda. He said Congress had two of its most productive weeks just before beginning its Easter recess, capped by Senate enactment of Clinton’s bill to set national education goals.

“We have a very aggressive but doable agenda until the end of the session, but certainly for the next 30 days,” he said. The focus will be on health care and welfare reform and a controversial crime bill pending in the House, he said.

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“I think there’s a lot of momentum going,” he said. “We don’t see any evidence of anything that is slowing down.”


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