WASHINGTON -- As the first witness to testify before the grand jury investigating the Monica Lewinsky matter, Betty Currie, President Clinton's little-known personal secretary, struggled through the media throng in January with a deer-in-the-headlights look of terror.
Yesterday, Currie returned to the grand jury, this time a bit calmer and looking more like someone grown used to the fact that the TV set in her office, always tuned to CNN, sometimes broadcasts news about her.
Currie, 58, was silent as she left the courthouse at day's end, standing near her lawyer as he implored the media to respect his client's privacy.
But as much as she tries to evade the spotlight, this most private, churchgoing woman has become a pivotal player in the furor surrounding Clinton's relationship with the former White House intern.
In his deposition in the now-dismissed Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case, the president mentioned his secretary of five years over and over again. He said it was Currie who initiated the job search for Lewinsky that led to extensive efforts by Clinton confidant Vernon Jordan to secure for Lewinsky a private-sector job in New York.
Jordan, who testified before the grand jury Tuesday, has also said it was Currie who asked him to help Lewinsky find a job. But his lawyer has said that Jordan assumed that Clinton was the source of the request, and Jordan has said he kept the president informed about his efforts on Lewinsky's behalf.
Besides asking Currie who, if anyone, instructed her to initiate the Lewinsky job search, prosecutors are interested in Currie's knowledge of gifts that Clinton gave the young aide.
In his deposition, Clinton acknowledged giving Lewinsky some gifts but pointed to Currie once again as the instigator. He said that when he went to Martha's Vineyard last summer for vacation, Currie asked him to bring back souvenirs for Lewinsky from a popular restaurant there.
After Lewinsky was subpoenaed by Jones' lawyers, she returned some of those gifts to Currie. Prosecutors want to find out from Currie whose idea it was for Lewinsky to return the gifts, an act that could amount to tampering with evidence and thus obstruction of justice. Was it her idea? Lewinsky's? Clinton's?
Currie has told prosecutors that she thought Clinton might have sometimes been alone with Lewinsky. Currie also has testified that Clinton called her in to work on the Sunday after he was questioned by Jones' lawyers to go over the testimony he had given to questions about Lewinsky.
As the grand jury heard from Currie yesterday, Clinton declared at a news conference that his claim of executive privilege in the Lewinsky case is "quite different" from the Watergate battle over President Richard M. Nixon's tapes. On Tuesday, a judge rejected the White House's argument that executive privilege protected two top Clinton aides from having to answer some questions put to them by the grand jury.
A deeply religious woman, Currie is said to be extremely loyal to Clinton. In a 1996 interview, she called Clinton "one of the nicest, most wonderful people I have ever had the pleasure to work for."
Late last year, Clinton stood by her side, sharing a hymnal with her at the funeral of her brother, Theodore Williams Jr., who had been killed in a car accident.
When a friend, Donna Brazile, administrative aide to District of Columbia Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, gave Currie a CD of spiritual music after the death of her brother, Currie wanted to give the CD to Clinton. "I said, 'No, it's for you,' " Brazile recalled.
But while devoted to Clinton, Currie is not someone, friends say, whose loyalty would extend to lying.
"She's not a Rose Mary Woods," said Currie's friend Paul Costello, a former Carter administration official, referring to Nixon's secretary, who swore she had "accidentally" erased portions of a key Watergate tape. "She's not going to protect anyone at all costs.
"I don't think she would ever lie -- I don't think she would lie to protect her mother. I think Betty is a person who is at her core a woman of honesty and integrity. Whatever the truth is, she will lay it out for the grand jury."
In a city where seldom is heard a flattering word, Currie appears to be universally adored and respected. Colleagues say she is "beloved" at the White House and affectionately call her the "mother hen of the West Wing."
With a candy dish and framed photo of Socks, the first cat, on her desk -- and a hidden stash of White House M&Ms; for children -- Currie is described as kind and unflappable, a selfless person with an infectious laugh and a friendly lilt to the "President's office" greeting with which she answers the phone.
Noting her professionalism and devotion to her family, Clinton once called her "a role model for many of us in the White House."
For her $60,000-a-year job, she generally starts work at 7: 45 a.m. every weekday and also comes in on Saturdays when Clinton tapes his weekly radio address. Though she takes care of her ailing mother, Currie occasionally travels with the president, as she did on Clinton's recent trip through Africa.
In a small office just outside the Oval Office door, with glass doors that open onto the Rose Garden, Currie screens the
president's mail, handles his phone calls and faxes. She also receives guests who have come to meet with the president, usually putting them at ease with her friendly manner.
Through her job she has met South African President Nelson Mandela, the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and actress Barbra Streisand, who invited her to the New York premiere of her most recent movie, "The Mirror Has Two Faces," and a party afterward at Tavern on the Green.
Clinton adviser James Carville describes Currie as "everyone's favorite aunt," and says it is no surprise that she would befriend Lewinsky and try to help her find a job. "She helps people in any kind of way she can," Carville says.
But others say they find odd Clinton's testimony that Currie initiated the job hunt for Lewinsky and enlisted Jordan to help.
"She is a career civil servant at heart," said one longtime friend and former colleague. "Which means you follow the rule book; you don't operate outside the bounds of authority. It does not make sense that Betty would just, out of nowhere, decide she was going to help Monica out and call Vernon Jordan. It just doesn't jibe with me."
Similarly, the former co-worker said, "I can't imagine Betty saying to the president, 'Will you go shopping for a friend of mine while you're up in Martha's Vineyard?' She was never, ever, ever the type of person to impose her needs on someone like that."
A housekeeper's daughter, Currie grew up on the integrated south side of Waukegan, Ill. Two years after graduating from high school, she left a job as a clerk-typist at the Great Lakes Naval NTC Training Center for a similar job with the Navy in Washington.
She told her mother, according to a 1996 interview, that she wanted to "see more, do more, know more."
Currie worked at secretarial jobs at a number of federal agencies -- and married, raised a daughter and then divorced -- before landing a job as confidential assistant to the director of ACTION, the agency that ran the Peace Corps. At ACTION, Currie met her current husband, Robert Currie, a federal worker now retired.
Currie left government service in 1984 and volunteered for the presidential campaign of former Vice President Walter F. Mondale.
"It was a time when many African-Americans were getting their feet wet in the political process," said Brazile, who met Currie in that campaign. "Betty was smitten with it. She showed up again in '88."
Though not a fierce partisan, Currie went to work in 1988 for Michael S. Dukakis, the Democratic presidential nominee. Four years later, after a stint working for celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley, Currie was recruited for the 1992 Clinton campaign's famed "war room" in Little Rock, Ark.
She has been just yards away from Clinton's Oval Office desk since his first day in the White House in 1993.
Colleagues have been saddened to see Currie drawn into such a messy public furor. "She built her whole life on creating a very private, understated existence," said White House aide Ann Walker, a Currie friend. "This is the exact opposite of how she's used to living her life."
After her first appearance before the grand jury, Currie was greeted back at the White House with hugs and flowers. She's still getting e-mail, cards and calls from friends who want to return the warmth and support that Currie, they say, has always been to ready to extend to them.
Brazile, for one, has been sending Currie the kinds of notes she believes will comfort her most. "You talk in Scripture to Betty," said the longtime friend. "You say, 'Betty, Psalm 55, Cast your burden onto the Lord and he shall sustain you.' "
Pub Date: 5/07/98