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Eyes On The Oval

Clinton secretary Currie, subpoenaed by Starr, could be the first crack in Clinton's stonewall defense

By Eric Pooley/TIME

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Her eyes seemed to say, don't hit me. Her shoulders were hunched and her forearms raised, as if to ward off a blow. When Betty Currie became the object of a terrifying media scrum last month, after testifying before Kenneth Starr's grand jury in Washington, she looked for all the world like an innocent victim caught in the teeth of scandal. But last Friday the world learned that Currie has some teeth of her own.

The New York Times reported that Currie, Bill Clinton's personal secretary, told Starr's investigators that the President had led her through a sugarcoated account of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky: We were never alone, right? But Currie's memories of Lewinsky differed from the President's. She reportedly told Starr's lawyers that Clinton and Lewinsky sometimes had been alone together--and the stone wall surrounding the President's inner sanctum finally seemed to crack.

The White House tried to patch up the damage, saying that Clinton had merely been "checking to see if Mrs. Currie's recollection was the same as his." Currie's lawyer strongly denied "any implication" that Clinton had tried to influence her version of the story. But the reports stung the White House because Currie, 58--a bighearted, churchgoing matron--had a kind of credibility no one else in this mess could muster. She is a Clinton loyalist, a reluctant witness squeezed between her devotion to her boss and her obligation to the facts. She was Ken Starr's dream come true.

Currie has an irreproachable air, yet her name has turned up again and again at the heart of the scandal: it was Currie who frequently cleared Lewinsky into the White House and received her packages; Currie who referred Lewinsky to superlawyer Vernon Jordan for one job and, through deputy chief of staff John Podesta, to U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson for another. And it was Currie who allegedly collected from Lewinsky a dress and other gifts Clinton had given the former intern--items that were under subpoena by lawyers for Paula Jones. It isn't known who asked Currie to collect those gifts, which she held for weeks before turning them over to Starr. But it's hard to imagine her lying to protect anyone.

That's because Currie is not just another cold-eyed operative whose job it is to clean up after a politician. Her colleagues, cooler and more cynical than she, describe her in terms that are saintly but at times faintly patronizing: quiet, motherly, floating serenely above the madness of the West Wing, greeting big and little fish with the same understated warmth. From her perch outside the Oval Office she sees all, hands out candy from a communal bowl and is never too busy to coo at a newborn or look after a needy young staff member or intern. "She answers phones, places calls for the President, does some mail and greets people," says a senior Clinton adviser, "but she has a fair amount of time on her hands." He means she's not a player.

Though Currie has been Clinton's secretary since 1993, she is not his most powerful gatekeeper. That distinction goes to Nancy Hernreich, the director of Oval Office operations, who has been with Clinton since Arkansas. Hernreich, who recommended Currie for the secretarial job, is the President's scheduler and, with Currie, makes up the last line of defense against those who clamor for Clinton's time. They have a good-cop-bad-cop routine in which Hernreich shuts down access to Clinton while Currie smooths ruffled feathers with a kindly "We'll get back to you, dear." And the lower down you are on the food chain, her colleagues say, the nicer she is to you.

No one was lower on the chain than Monica Lewinsky, and some sources say the intern targeted Currie as a way to get to Clinton. "She worked Betty hard," says a Clinton adviser, "to put herself in the eye of the President. She knew the President was in and out of [Betty's] suite." But no one seems to think Currie--with her religious core, her sensible attire and her hair pulled back in a no-nonsense chignon--would cover up for untoward behavior. "She's no Rose Mary Woods," says longtime friend Paul Costello. "Betty's very straight," says a co-worker. "It's hard to imagine her helping [Clinton] get away with anything. It's not her style."

That style was forged in postwar Waukegan, Ill., a Lake Michigan shore town about 50 miles north of Chicago. A housekeeper's daughter, Betty Williams was ambitious and nimble. When she and her neighborhood friends moved from a mostly black elementary school to the mostly white high school, she left behind her black friends without embittering them. "In advancing herself, she kind of faded away from us," says classmate Nathan Booker. "But nobody held it against her because she was always nice and courteous." She graduated from high school in 1957 and took a job as a clerk typist; two years later she made the leap to Washington because "I wanted to see more, do more, know more," as she once told a reporter. She married, had a daughter and divorced while moving through a succession of federal secretarial positions that culminated in 12 years as confidential assistant to the director of ACTION, the agency that ran the Peace Corps. It was at ACTION that she met the man who is her husband of 10 years, retired civil servant Robert Currie. And it was at ACTION that she first tasted scandal, in 1979, when Congress investigated charges that the agency had given grants to its friends. "Everyone else was panicked," says Anthony Podesta, the Clinton aide's brother, who was a consultant to ACTION during the mess, "but Betty was steady."

Currie retired from government in 1984 and took a volunteer position as office manager of Geraldine Ferraro's vice-presidential campaign. Four years later, John Podesta brought her into Michael Dukakis' organization. And in 1992, she went to Little Rock, Ark., to become the unofficial den mother to James Carville, George Stephanopoulos and the rest of Clinton's rapid-responding, bimbo-squelching "war room" crew. (Her war-room association alone should put to rest the notion that Currie is a political naive.) After Clinton was elected, Currie landed a job with Warren Christopher during the transition. That's when Hernreich recommended that she replace Clinton's longtime secretary, who had decided not to leave Little Rock for Washington. Currie took the job, her husband says, because it seemed like fun. "Betty does what's interesting and what's right," he says.

Working for Clinton has helped seal Currie's place in the Democratic firmament--she moves easily through the most sophisticated worlds, and is friendly with Vernon Jordan and donor Walter Kaye (who recommended Lewinsky for the internship). But, as she once told the Chicago Tribune, "I didn't think the hours would be so long." She works 12 hours a day six days a week--and sometimes on Sundays, as she did Jan. 18, when Clinton reportedly called her in and walked her through his version of the Lewinsky affair. As the fallout from that day continues, unwanted opportunities are falling into Currie's lap. Tell-all biographer Kitty Kelley, an acquaintance of Currie's, called her last week and offered to pay her legal bills. (Currie declined.) But even aside from the Lewinsky mess, the past year has been difficult for Currie. She lost a sister and a brother in quick succession, but few who work with Currie ever glimpsed her grief. Robert Currie has been trying to get his wife to retire. Persuading her, he told TIME last week, "might get easier after this."

--Reported by Margaret Carlson, James Carney, Sally B. Donnelly and Karen Tumulty/Washington and Ron Stodghill II/Waukegan
In TIME This Week

Cover Date: February 16, 1998

The Press And The Dress
Drip Drip Drip
Behind The Scenes With Monica
Just An Affectionate Guy
Ain't We Got Fun
Time To Off Saddam?
With A Little Help From His Friends
Eyes On The Oval
The Art of the Leak
Inside the Magic Bubble
Give Me a Break!

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