Clinton’s ’92 ‘Crisis Cabinet’ Is Reunited


Scrambling to survive the worst political crisis of his career, President Clinton has turned to the combat-savvy advisors who helped him escape a lifetime’s worth of tight spots in the past--including Dick Morris, the 1996 campaign strategist who quit that post amid his own sex scandal.

The advisors are counseling the president to hang tough, stick to his broad denials of wrongdoing and hope for the controversy to die down, aides said.

Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, believe the story is “beginning to turn” now that the president, during a brief appearance Monday, issued “a pretty emphatic denial,” one advisor said.


White House officials said a virtual “crisis cabinet” has formed around Clinton and the first lady to organize a strategy to rebut allegations that the president had a sexual relationship with a former White House intern and sought to persuade her to conceal the affair from investigators.

Key members, they said, include former Commerce Secretary and Los Angeles lawyer Mickey Kantor; White House Deputy Chief of Staff Bruce R. Lindsey; former Deputy Chief of Staff Harold M. Ickes, and Los Angeles television producer Harry Thomason, a longtime Clinton confidant.

Many of the Clintons’ crisis advisors have battled controversies of their own. Morris resigned after he confessed to giving presidential documents to a prostitute. Kantor has been questioned by prosecutors for arranging financial assistance for Webster L. Hubbell, a former associate attorney general convicted on fraud and tax charges.

But the gravity of the charges against the president--and the near-panic engendered by the White House’s uncertain initial response--led the Clintons to reach for all the help they could get, aides said.

First Lady Said to Be at Center of Crisis Team

At the center of the crisis team is Mrs. Clinton, several people involved in the effort said.

“The first lady is totally engaged [and] focused,” said one. “She’s the strategist, engaged on the strategy, talking to the lawyers.”


At Mrs. Clinton’s side is Kantor. His biggest credential: In the 1992 presidential campaign, he was a key player in the effort that helped Clinton survive charges of womanizing, draft-dodging and marijuana use--and he is trusted by Mrs. Clinton.

“It’s just a normal attorney-client relationship,” Kantor’s legal partner, Kenneth S. Geller, said in a moment of understatement. “Somebody needs legal advice, and Mickey is well qualified to give it.”

White House aides described Kantor’s role as more critical, however. Until last weekend, the White House appeared virtually paralyzed because its lawyers and its political staff were at odds--the lawyers counseling silence, the politicos pleading for a strong public statement.

“Mickey can bridge the legal and political contexts of the case,” a senior White House official said.

Kantor will officially be described as merely “assisting” Clinton’s two private lawyers, Robert S. Bennett and David E. Kendall--but only to preserve “the egos involved,” the official said.

The controversial Morris is playing a lesser but still intriguing role, officials said.

The political strategist has been faxing suggestions to Clinton and may have been on the telephone with the president as well.


White House officials and a Morris associate said the former advisor has been in intermittent contact with Clinton for months, but they refused to say how recently.

“Dick, as he frequently does, has offered advice,” White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said. “He has sent a lot of ideas in, and they are taken under consideration. . . . I would not doubt for a minute that they have talked. From time to time, he talks to Dick Morris. If I were in this situation, I would reach out to a broad range of advisors as well.”

Campaign Strategist’s Ties With President

Morris, with whom Clinton has had an on-again, off-again relationship for years, did not return telephone calls. But an associate quoted him as saying that his contacts with Clinton have continued in recent weeks but “have not increased.”

One official said Mrs. Clinton, who was reportedly furious at Morris for his sexual escapade, would not welcome the former advisor back into the White House.

Lindsey, Ickes and Thomason are deeper in the Clintons’ inner circle.

Lindsey, an Arkansas lawyer, has been one of the Clintons’ closest confidants for decades.

“Bruce is the keeper of the secrets,” one official said.

Ickes, a hard-nosed New York attorney, is the take-no-prisoners political operative who orchestrated Clinton’s political comeback after Republicans swept to control of Congress in the 1994 elections and the president’s reelection prospects seemed doubtful.

Thomason, a Hollywood TV and movie producer, is a longtime Clinton friend from Arkansas who has often taken on the role of bolstering the president’s confidence in times of crisis.


All except Morris served in Clinton’s 1992 campaign--which appears to be the model for White House strategy today.

In February 1992, as he struggled through a blizzard of allegations seeking to keep his presidential hopes alive, Clinton described his strategy this way:

“A lot of politicians just sit around waiting for the other shoe to fall. They always think something bad can happen and take them out, and I guess it can. What I’ve tried to do, instead of just hunkering in, you know, is just kind of turn into the storm and see if we can weather it.”

Clinton’s aggressive approach allowed him to stem a political free fall in the New Hampshire primary campaign that threatened to doom his presidential hopes. He still lost the primary to former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, but he claimed the title “comeback kid” with his second-place finish and went on to win the Democratic presidential nomination.

Six years later, his advisors--and his response--are much the same.

Clinton’s statement Monday morning that “these allegations are false, and I need to go back to work for the American people,” for example, is almost the same formula he used in New Hampshire to respond to the twin allegations of draft evasion and an affair with Gennifer Flowers.

So too is the effort of White House aides to focus public attention on the motives of his attackers. In 1992, the campaign focused its hostility on the press; this time the White House thunder is focused on independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.


“The main thing is to just keep on going and let a lot of this stuff swirl out of the way,” said one of the president’s longest-standing advisors. “You just keep trudging through,” the advisor said, expressing a growing confidence that doing so will allow the crisis to “burn out of the way a bit.”

Times staff writers David Lauter, Elizabeth Shogren and Alan C. Miller contributed to this story.


The Crisis Team

President Clinton has surrounded himself with these key loyalists to help him survive the allegations of a sexual relationship and possible coverup.

Mickey Kantor: U.S. secretary of Commerce, 1996-97; U.S. trade representative, 1992-96. A tried and true Clinton loyalist who combines legal acumen with political savvy.

Harold M. Ickes: New York attorney; White House deputy chief of staff, 1994-97. Pugnacious, take-no-prisoners political operative who engineered Clinton’s political recovery in 1995-96.

Harry Thomason: Hollywood TV and movie producer, longtime friend of the Clintons from Arkansas. Disliked by many on White House staff but admired for image-shaping abilities.


Bruce R. Lindsey: Closest confidant and aide for decades. Known as keeper of the secrets on the White House staff; an advocate of tough, admit-nothing stance.

Dick Morris: On-again, off-again advisor fired in 1996 after it was revealed he gave presidential documents to a prostitute, but still admired by Clinton for political instincts.