Cover Story

Slick meets Mrs. Willey

Just as the nation was shrugging off the Monica Lewinsky story, Kathleen Willey stepped into America's living room. Even leaders of the reliably Democratic feminist movement were forced to speak out. But what of the Christian public? Are they uninterested? Or have they concluded-as one Christian network may have-that what they don't know won't hurt them?

Issue: "Clinton: Final straw?," March 28, 1998

(In Washington)--"Character Does Count" reads a sticker prominently displayed in the studio of Christian radio talk show host Janet Parshall. The day after Kathleen Willey's explosive 60 Minutes interview, Mrs. Parshall is trying to remind her listeners-on 70 stations coast to coast-of the truth of that sticker. Her 10-minute summary of the scandal to date is interspersed with sound bites from the interview. As Mrs. Willey haltingly recounts her story of sexual assault by the president of the United States, Mrs. Parshall, alone inside her glassed-in studio, visibly stiffens and gives a slight shudder. Plainly, this is not an easy show for her to do. It is an easy show for her production assistant, however. She chats with a reporter while keeping an eye on the six-line telephone, which remains stubbornly dark throughout much of the broadcast. Calls dribble in, but it's hardly a deluge. One caller wants to know how this relates to the death of Vincent Foster. Another asks about the president's ties to a "Red Chinese spy agency." A third caller simply urges his fellow listeners not to "cast the first stone." It's just another day in the ongoing Clinton scandal watch. A bomb dropped the night before, yet among the Christian public the landscape appears unaltered. Bewildered believers seem unsure how to react as leaders like Billy Graham "forgive" the president on national television, then urge accountability in The New York Times. A former Southern Baptist Convention president lashes out at alleged immorality, but a major Christian radio network refuses to carry the broadcast. Newspaper stories are rated PG-13, making for difficult discussion from the pulpit. And even as the allegations escalate from adultery to perjury to sexual assault, the president's approval ratings remain at historic highs. Never have Christians seemed so far from the mainstream, so out of touch with the prevailing zeitgeist. The latest revelations induce a still more queasy feeling than those that came before. Even Janet Parshall, in her efforts to keep her listeners informed, had to carefully edit the interview in which Mrs. Willey went into great detail about her harrowing experience with the president. Broke and desperate, Mrs. Willey said she went to Bill Clinton in 1993 seeking a White House job to help pay off the debts incurred by her husband, a prominent Virginia Democrat. Just outside the Oval Office, with Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen waiting in the wings, President Clinton kissed her and groped her against her will, she charged. "It was like I was watching it in slow motion and thinking surely this is not happening," she told 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley in a segment watched by an estimated 30 million Americans. "I thought, 'Well, maybe I ought to just give him a good slap across the face.' And then I thought, 'Well, I don't think you can slap the president of the United States like that.'" That interview was immediately seen as tremendously damaging. "Slap Him!" screamed a headline in Monday's New York Post. The more restrained Washington Post opined that Mrs. Willey would make "a more troublesome witness for the president" than his other female accusers because she came across as so reluctant to tell her story and because, as a loyal Democrat, she could hardly be counted as part of what Hillary Clinton calls the "vast right-wing conspiracy." And a New York Times editorial predicted "a resurgence of the old conviction that character counts, and that rigorous inquiry into the character of presidential candidates is not an intrusion but a civic obligation." A rigorous inquiry into the character of the president is the last thing Mr. Clinton's advisers want. With the economy humming along, many voters seem eager to be convinced that the rapidly mounting charges are untrue. The White House obliged them by hurriedly releasing a raft of letters and phone logs showing that Mrs. Willey remained on superficially cordial terms with the president even after the alleged assault. (Ironically, such records still have not been released regarding Mr. Clinton's contacts with Monica Lewinsky.) In the nine letters, Mrs. Willey praised the president, offered her help in his reelection effort, and sought various appointments, including an ambassadorship. She signed herself, "Fondly." But the normal Clinton strategy of attacking the accuser is problematic in this case. Feminists argued heatedly during the Clarence Thomas hearings that sexually harassed women often find themselves unable to break ties with the men who control their job security and financial future. For the first time, those same feminists found themselves confronted with Bill Clinton's equivalent of Anita Hill: an articulate, soft-spoken woman who felt violated by a man upon whom she depended. And unlike Monica Lewsinky or Gennifer Flowers, Mrs. Willey never claimed to be a consensual partner to the president. Instead, by her own account, he took advantage of her vulnerability and forced himself on her: "He's a big man. And he-he had his arms-they were tight around me.... I just felt overpowered." That was too much for even some of Mr. Clinton's staunchest feminist allies. "This is not just sexual harassment," said Patricia Ireland, president of the National Association of Women, on CNN later that same night. "If it's true, it's sexual assault." Camille Paglia, often considered an even more radical feminist, accused NOW's leadership of being "Democrats first and feminists second" because they took so long to respond. "It's like the harassment train has already left the station and here she is, wildly trying to catch the last caboose." Ms. Ireland, an unabashed fan of the administration's push for abortion and tax-funded child care, finally had to admit that "The cumulation of stories starts to affect one's opinions. I do think we are now moving from talking about a womanizer to talking about, perhaps, a predator. He once was what I like to call a likable rogue. He's moving into a scary man." Such statements must have scared the president's advisers, but they quickly found solace in a plethora of polls taken over the next few days. ABC News found that 60 percent of Americans believed Mr. Clinton had engaged in a pattern of sexual misconduct, but 70 percent wanted him to remain in office. Meanwhile, a Gallup poll for CNN/USA Today showed that 43 percent of respondents believed Mrs. Willey but 40 percent still believed the president. A schizophrenia is evident in Clinton administration responses to Paula Jones's 700-page filing with the federal court on March 13, answering the president's motion to dismiss the case. The document included depositions by several women who said under oath that Mr. Clinton had committed adultery with them and, in some cases, sexually harassed them. Clinton spokesmen minimized the plight of those women, and in particular Mrs. Willey, by pointing to her continued desire to work for or around the president. But when some supporters of Clarence Thomas made the same types of arguments about Anita Hill in 1991, current Clinton communications director Ann Lewis bristled. "We know what it can be like to work for a boss who insults you, who degrades you and yet you feel you have to go on working, you have to go on being friendly," she said then. Schizophrenia is also evident in the responses of some Christians to the swirling allegations. Billy Graham's unilateral forgiveness of Mr. Clinton on Today reflected the Christian community's deeply ingrained tendency to "judge not, that ye be not judged." But Mr. Graham's contention that the president really couldn't help himself in view of the many temptations he faced drew a stunned reaction from Today host Katie Couric, Christian columnist Cal Thomas, and Jewish columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz, among others. Two days after the Willey story, Mr. Graham tried to nuance his position in The New York Times, noting that television soundbites "seldom allow time for balanced discussion and thoughtful reflection." He insisted that leaders must be held to a high moral standard and that "there is simply no such thing as an impenetrable fire wall between what we do privately and what we do publicly." But preachers who do take on the issue face charges of being overly political. Adrian Rogers, a past president of the SBC, recently preached a sermon in Georgia titled "Does Morality Count?" in which he spoke of Mr. Clinton by name. Focus on the Family's James Dobson thought the sermon was important enough to spend two days broadcasting it in its entirety, along with comments by Mr. Dobson. But Moody Bible Institute officials refused to carry the sermon on Moody's 28 owned-and-operated stations. "In broadcasts that deal with political issues, we understand Christians have varying positions," explains John Maddex, division manager of Moody Broadcast Stations. "We don't want someone to hear a broadcast and assume that apparently you have to be a Republican to come to Christ." Bob Dobbs, director of Briargate Media, Focus on the Family's in-house media buying agency, said it is very rare that stations refuse to air particular shows-perhaps less than five times a year. Nonetheless, when Moody expressed concern recently over the increasingly political content of broadcasts, Focus agreed to alert Moody managers in advance of particular shows that might be controversial. "We understand that there are some sensitivities," Mr. Dobbs says. Moody's decision to preempt the Adrian Rogers sermon generated enough of a backlash that Mr. Maddex composed a form letter for listeners who wrote to complain. "We agree with you that the basic message by Dr. Rogers on morality and leadership was a fine, biblical treatment," the letter read in part. What Moody objected to was the tone of the sermon, rather than its content. Mr. Maddex singled out such phrases as "You know [President Clinton] is lying when he moves his lips," and "Perversion has moved out of the closet and into the cabinet." He said those phrases and others like them violated Moody's five-point guidelines for dealing with political issues, which include "Never [to] deride, ridicule or attack ... a government leader or people who hold an opposing opinion." Though neither Moody nor Focus would openly criticize the other's approach, the flap does illustrate the difficulty that Christian leaders face when taking on highly charged political issues like the Clinton scandal. Several weeks after nixing the Rogers broadcast, Moody officials agreed to air an earlier version of the sermon Mr. Rogers had preached in his home church-a version that does not include the comments or the audience reaction Moody found offensive. "Some feel, 'Don't hold back; tell it like it is,'" Mr. Maddex says. "We're not being critical of that approach, but this is our approach." For his part, Mr. Dobbs had no regrets about either the tone or the content of the original broadcast. "From Focus' perspective, the times are such that we need this kind of preaching, and we hope others see the need. We have this really strong call to draw a line in the sand sometimes." Like shifting sand, cultural norms seem to be on the move, leaving Christians with a sense of dislocation unlike anything they've seen since the 1960s. Ten years ago, when Gary Hart was caught in the Bahamas with a woman who was not his wife, Christians reacted with outrage. But so did millions of other Americans, and Mr. Hart was forced out of the Democratic presidential primary. In 1998, by contrast, President Clinton faces charges that might make Mr. Hart blush, yet Christians seem to be almost alone in taking offense at his alleged behavior. In the new moral milieu, right and wrong are determined by the Gallup Poll and the Dow Jones Industrial Average. That may be the ultimate reason for believers' relatively muted response to the scandals. The president's alleged behavior is so self-evidently wrong that it doesn't even admit debate. Yet the debate, inexplicably, goes on, leaving Christians both dumb and numb. But Marlin Maddoux of USA Radio emphasizes that "the Christian faith is not on trial here. Conservative values are not on trial. What's on trial is moral relativism. It's the '60s culture that says we can't condemn anybody for anything." The trauma of the sex scandal, Mr. Maddoux says, "has given us the opportunity to look at our values up close. If that kind of debate takes place, Bill Clinton will have done this country a great favor." In that case, Janet Parshall's six-line phone system won't be enough.

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