The White House moved swiftly yesterday to stem a new flood of Whitewater and related allegations suddenly washing over first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Moving at campaign speed, the president's spokesman took sharp offense at a column by William Safire in the New York Times, suggesting that Mr. Clinton would like to punch him in the nose.
Driving the furor is two memorandums that place Mrs. Clinton at the center of episodes under investigation by Congress - one showing her as behind the firing of seven employees in the White House travel office, the other raising issues about her legal work for Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan.
The revelations, at the beginning of a presidential election year, are forcing the White House to refocus Mrs. Clinton's upcoming national tour to publicize her new book on raising children, "It Takes a Village."
The editorial pages of the New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, which have generally been friendly to the administration, in recent days have questioned the first lady's explanations. The harshest attack came from Mr. Safire, who called the first lady a "congenital liar." He cited several examples of what he described as lies.
"If I were an ordinary citizen, I might give that column the response it deserves," Mr. Clinton said, hours after his spokesman spoke of the president wanting to take a poke at Mr. Safire.
The president repeated his contention that the lengthy Whitewater inquiry has borne out his and the first lady's version of events.
"I just would like the American people to take a deep breath, relax and listen to the first lady's answers," he said. "I've said before and I'll say again, if everybody in this country had the character that my wife has, we'd be a better place to live."
But it's not just Mr. Safire. Other pundits are writing harsh things, too, several of them using the "L-word" for the first time. Some of the harshest comments about the new memos have been written by women. The documents, writes Suzanne Fields of The Washington Times in her nationally syndicated column, suggest "that she lied - there is no polite word for it." Agrees syndicated columnist Mona Charen: "What the country is not ready for is a dissembling first lady whose word cannot be trusted." Syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer says the memos paint her as "a first-lady virago."
Cal Thomas, the syndicated columnist and network talk-show host, writes that "we have progressed to the `damn lies' stage, and the press has finally been forced to pay attention." Paul Greenberg of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, who writes from the president's hometown, observes that "someone who didn't know this was a memo might mistake it for a gun, and think it was smoking."
Wesley Pruden, editor-in-chief of The Times, wrote in his column yesterday that "the memorandum has the ring of unalloyed truth, and screams that Miss Hillary lied - `fibbed' is too weak to describe her part in the travel office massacre and cover-up."
The White House comments - and a challenge Monday by Mrs. Clinton's attorney, David Kendall, to the Senate Whitewater committee chairman, Alfonse M. D'Amato - appeared to be part of a quick-response strategy that will be employed if necessary this year, campaign officials say. Campaign analysts offered instant diagnosis.
"I'd say this is very serious," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. "In some ways, it's almost worse for the president to have these charges made against his wife than against himself." Meanwhile, Rose Law Firm billing records undermine the image that Mrs. Clinton is, above all, highly ethical, he says. "So, in a sense, it's coming at her from two directions."
Some Clinton operatives dismiss the risks. Ann Lewis, deputy manager and spokesman for the Clinton-Gore '96 campaign, says polls …