Charges Frustrate, Anger Clintons : White House: Sources say the couple's confident public image masks their distress over what they see as a campaign to discredit them.


In public, President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton have remained unfailingly confident, patiently defending themselves against the seemingly endless questions and criticisms about their financial investments and the President's personal conduct while governor of Arkansas.

In private, however, senior aides and others close to the Clintons say they are angry, frustrated and frequently distracted by the continuing allegations and by what they see as a politically inspired campaign to discredit them.

White House sources described Hillary Clinton as privately "distressed and consumed" by the Whitewater matter--the failed real estate development that critics say led to improper benefits for the Clintons--and other controversies. The sources said she is "incredibly angry that it's distracting from health care reform."

Clinton himself rails to associates about what he contends is "unfair media coverage" and attacks by conservative critics, the sources said. He fumes that no other President has had to endure attacks based on events of 10 or 15 years before they entered the White House.

And he insists that various allegations of financial and sexual misconduct were fully aired during the 1992 presidential campaign, even though additional allegations have emerged since he was elected President--many of them at odds with explanations given during the campaign.

Indeed, the appointment of special counsel Robert B. Fiske Jr. to investigate the Whitewater allegations occurred in large part because of such disparities and seeming contradictions.

Nor does it seem likely that the storms will die down anytime soon.

Last week, former Arkansas state worker Paula Corbin Jones filed a long-threatened civil lawsuit accusing Clinton of sexual harassment and improper advances in 1991. While the Clintons' attorney, Robert S. Bennett, dismissed Jones' accusations as "tabloid trash," they are only the latest in a series of allegations of sexual misconduct against Clinton. And the lawsuit raises the prospect of round after round of unflattering news reports if it works its way through the legal system.

Meantime, conservative critics are keeping up their attacks, reporters are still digging into the Clintons' past, congressional hearings are in the offing and key parts of Fiske's investigation are likely to run well into next year. One lawyer working on Whitewater said it could extend into 1996, when Clinton likely will be running for reelection.

The Clintons stumbled in their early responses to the Whitewater controversy and resisted the appointment of a special counsel. But Chief of Staff Thomas (Mack) McLarty said that "we think we have it managed well now, although it will ebb and flow a little--it's not fully predictable."

While McLarty said he takes solace from members of Congress who say they do not hear much about the Whitewater controversy from their constituents, he added: "It is real, and we take it seriously. It feeds on skepticism people have about elected officials."

Said John Podesta, the aide named to head up the White House response to the Whitewater matter: "We just have to take it one day at a time now and answer all the questions. Underneath it all, the story is already out there in one form or another and there are not a lot of new facts to develop."

Before Podesta was named as the Whitewater point man in mid-March, the White House response to questions about the matter was unstructured and undisciplined, with what Podesta called "a lot of people" involved in the process.

But he said McLarty "told other people they shouldn't work on it or fret about it, but leave it to me and others working on it." That made people feel better, he said, "because it was out of their faces. . . ."

Galled by the ceaseless attacks as they are in private, the Clintons have not been diverted from pressing ahead with one of the heaviest congressional agendas of recent times.

Aides argue that one of Clinton's best responses to all the allegations is to try to achieve the goals of his presidency. "After going through a roller coaster of polls, the suicide of a colleague and all the attacks--personal and financial--and all the legislative battles, the President still has pursued the largest domestic agenda of any President in 30 years," a senior aide said. "People will judge him on that."

Moreover, aides predicted that Fiske will issue a report confirming the finding by U.S. Park Police that the shooting death of Vincent Foster, the Clintons' friend and deputy White House counsel, was a suicide and unrelated to the Whitewater matter or other controversies.

"The worst will be behind us after Fiske's report," said a senior aide.

For the Clintons, though, it has been an anguishing ordeal.

The President was crying the night last summer that he telephoned his mother in Little Rock, Ark., to tell her that Foster had killed himself. The President's mother, the late Virginia Kelley, broke down and cried too.

"Every man has his breaking point. We just don't know where it is," she told her son.

Clinton later took a long vacation, the first in many years. Kelley wrote in her autobiography that it made "his mother happier than I'd been in a long time."

Clinton, who has read and reread his mother's autobiography, cites it as a source of strength as he struggles to keep his Administration moving.

The most important lesson his mother imparted to him, the President said, was "just don't give up."

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