WASHINGTON - President Clinton's former top aide said yesterday that "obviously there was something more here" than the president has disclosed regarding his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and called on Clinton to come forward and explain it to the American public.
Leon Panetta, who served as White House chief of staff until January 1997, said he accepts Clinton's assertion that he never had sexual relations with Lewinsky and never told her to lie under oath. But Panetta added that it is increasingly clear that Clinton had some sort of relationship with Lewinsky.
"I take him at his word and I think the American people take him at his word. They're willing to give him the benefit of the doubt," Panetta said on ABC's "This Week with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts."
"But I also think that at some point he's got to tell the American people the truth of what was behind this relationship. Obviously, there was something more here."
Panetta's comments are the latest from Clinton's own circle suggesting he has not been fully candid with the public about Lewinsky and hinting at considerable doubt among those who have been closest to him.
Shortly after the Lewinsky story broke, Panetta suggested the possibility of Clinton's resigning if the allegations were true. Former White House aides George Stephanopoulos and Dee Dee Myers likewise have made skeptical statements.
And even current White House press secretary Mike McCurry has
publicly pondered the ramifications if Clinton is lying.
Moments after Panetta's appearance, Stephanopoulos, now an ABC commentator, echoed his sentiment, citing the three dozen times Lewinsky returned to the White House after leaving her low-level job there in April 1996. "It's not normal to have that many visits with an intern," he said.
The White House declined to respond formally to Panetta's statement, but aides clearly were unhappy with it. From their point of view, anything that focuses attention back on Clinton's behavior rather than the conduct of independent counsel Kenneth Starr is unwelcome.