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Furor over troopers' charges against Clinton cools down


WASHINGTON -- The White House, using a sophisticated and high-powered damage control effort, has apparently managed to defuse for now accusations of sexual misconduct and abuse of power by Bill Clinton -- without directly addressing the allegations themselves.

"Unless there's some new information, I think the attention on this stuff has passed," said one White House aide, referring to accusations by two Arkansas state troopers that, as governor, Mr. Clinton used his security detail to hide sexual escapades.

"I think the president did a lot yesterday to quiet it down," this aide said.

The effort to quell the flare-up over President Clinton's personal life consumed the White House staff for an entire week. And it involved not only the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton, but the highest-ranking members of his staff, including White House Counsel Bernard W. Nussbaum, Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty III, Counselor David R. Gergen, Communications Director Mark Gearan and senior adviser Bruce R. Lindsey.

On Tuesday, the White House image managers trotted out an impassioned Mrs. Clinton, who, without really discussing the merits of the allegations, characterized the entire episode as a politically motivated attack on her family at Christmas.

The next day, Mr. Clinton also denounced the allegations as "outrageous," while refusing to discuss the substance of them.

Turning point

But the turning point came Wednesday night when Clinton intimates arranged the release of a statement by an Arkansas state trooper denying that he or other troopers had been explicitly offered a federal job by the president in exchange for keeping quiet about what they knew.

This was key because, earlier in the week, what had helped give the troopers' story such wide currency was White House confirmation that Mr. Clinton had personally called the trooper in question, Danny Ferguson, out of concern that two other troopers, Larry G. Patterson and Roger L. Perry, were going public.

Trooper Perry told the Los Angeles Times that Mr. Clinton dangled the possibility of federal jobs for the troopers in his discussion with Trooper Ferguson. Trooper Ferguson confirmed to the newspaper that jobs had been discussed.

This was the only allegation that the president was willing to specifically deny Wednesday -- and it soon became apparent why.

Acting on a suggestion from Betsey Wright, Mr. Clinton's chief of staff when he was governor, who traveled from Washington to Little Rock this week, Trooper Ferguson suddenly released a clarifying statement Wednesday night in the form of an affidavit.

"Clinton never offered or indicated a willingness to give any trooper a job in exchange for silence or help in shaping their stories," the affidavit said.

This narrow, legalistic statement did not directly contradict Trooper Ferguson's essential claim, which he made to the Los Angeles Times, that the president had called to inquire about the other troopers and that he discussed a possible job for Trooper Perry.

Asked Wednesday by the Times if Mr. Clinton expressly said that jobs would be offered if the troopers remained silent, Trooper Ferguson said, "He didn't say those words."

Even with this statement, there was a continuing attack on Mr. Clinton's accusers.

The New York Times reported in today's editions that Trooper Perry and Trooper Patterson have had credibility problems, the most serious of which involved false statements made after a 1990 car wreck.

They lied about the circumstance of the accident because Trooper Patterson, drunk, had demolished a state police car while bar-hopping with Trooper Perry and another trooper. They later changed their stories while testifying in an insurance case.

Closed up shop

While the president has still not addressed the troopers' main allega tions, a number of the nation's major news organizations, admittedly uncomfortable with the sex story from the beginning, characterized Trooper Ferguson's affidavit as a complete recantation and basically closed up shop on the story.

A grateful White House did the same.

Yesterday, key aides began slipping out early. The crisis appeared to be over. Mr. Clinton strolled down to the White House press briefing room, playfully telling the photographers on call there to go and do some shopping of their own. "I'm wrapping presents," he said.

Back in her office, Betsey Wright was asked if she thought this was the end of the story. "It certainly should be," she said. "This stuff was made up out of whole cloth."

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