Two months ago, CNN talk-show host and leading suspenders advocate Larry King introduced his evening guest, Kathleen Willey, saying, “If we have to tell you who she is, you’ve been on some other planet the past few years.”
Actually, during the height of the Clinton sex scandal, you may have had to rocket to a neighboring galaxy to avoid Kathleen Willey’s name. Ever since the news broke in summer 1997 that Willey claimed she was the victim of an unwanted sexual advance by the President of the United States, her personal life has been dissected and splayed open on the airwaves.
Yet save for an interview with “60 Minutes” about her Oval Office story during the height of the scandal, she was largely quiet because Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr asked her not to talk to the media. But now that everything’s over, Willey says she’s ready to defend herself.
“It was the biggest mistake in my life, helping him get elected,” she says of Clinton. “I want [people] to know the truth.”
With the Clinton sex scandal and impeachment crisis over, it’s easy to think of Willey as yesterday’s flavor and oversaturated at that. However, Willey herself has said little or nothing, having done only a handful of interviews to date, all on television.
Her story is a riveting soap opera that not even Aaron Spelling could create, intertwined with some of the most important names in Virginia and American politics, full of high-society mingling and crushing personal tragedies.
A tough, aggressive social climber, she’s also been one of the most polarizing figures in the Clinton scandal. Nationally, she and her former best friend Julie Hiatt Steele have become iconic symbols for the battle over Bill Clinton. If you’re a true Rush Limbaugh Dittohead Republican, you believe Willey’s Grand Guignol story, largely because it confirms everything bad you believe about the Adulterer-In-Chief. If you’re a Democratic FOB, you believe Steele, the poor single mother and grandmother who was railroaded by Kenneth Starr in his witch hunt against Bill Clinton and human sexuality.
And in this gossipy Southern capital where rumors always abound, Willey and Steele are ripe and juicy characters. You almost have to keep a scorecard to see how many times they refute what each other says.
Who’s lying? It’s not her, says Willey, who despite her running arguments with Steele on national TV, seems grounded and down to earth.
A striking, petite woman with short, auburn hair and elfin cheekbones, she looks younger than her 53 years, dressed in an expensive silk shirt but walking barefoot through the front lawn of her secluded country home on a large, deeply wooded stretch of land in Powhatan County.
It’s a strangely contradictory life possessed by a woman who says she always thought of herself as “just a soccer mom.”
“I grew up in not the happiest of households,” says the former Kathleen Elizabeth Matzuk.
Raised in Henrico, her parents struggled financially, fought bitterly, and divorced when she was a young adult.
She went to Catholic schools “until I couldn’t take the nuns anymore” and finished at Douglas Southall Freeman High School. At age 18, Willey got pregnant and went to a home for unwed mothers in Ohio, where she gave birth to a baby boy. “I was never allowed to hold him or touch him or anything,” she recalls sadly.
Many years later, she found him. He visited her family, and after her husband’s death, walked Willey down the aisle at her daughter Shannon’s wedding. “I have not talked to him recently,” she says. “I think he was afraid he and his family were going to be dragged into this mess.”
Willey had been married two years and was four months pregnant with Shannon when her first husband, a medical student, ran out on her in January 1970. She was looking for a divorce lawyer when she remembered an attorney who lived in her North Side apartment complex. Thirteen years older than she, Edward E. Willey Jr. was the son of state Sen. Edward Willey Sr., probably the most powerful state legislator in Virginia history and the man for whom the Willey Bridge is named.
Willey Jr. built a thriving real-estate law practice, becoming a familiar face at city and county zoning hearings.
He was in the process of finalizing his divorce from his first wife, with whom he had two children. Kathleen Willey spotted him one day at the apartment complex’s swimming pool.
“I said, ‘What kind of lawyer are you?'” He replied: “A good one.” Ed Willey took her divorce case. He also fell in love with her. In January 1971, they married. Ed adopted eight-month-old Shannon and raised her as his own.
Ed and Kathleen Willey later had a son, Patrick. They purchased a $270,000 home in the Salisbury subdivision in Midlothian, but were house poor. For a long time, a sofa and their beds were the only pieces of furniture in the house, Kathleen Willey recalls.
Yet, they also lived well. The kids went to private schools. The family took Christmas skiing vacations to Switzerland in the 1980s and by the early ’90s, they bought a condo in Vail, Colo. And Kathleen Willey, who grew up poor, always drove fancy cars and wore noticeably expensive clothing and jewelry, friends and acquaintances have said.
The Willeys also found a common passion for Democratic politics, working for Ed’s father, former Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, and others. Kathleen became a skilled fund-raiser, helping on Sen. Al Gore’s 1988 presidential bid.
She worked as a volunteer in Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder’s office and later assisted the chairperson for his historic inaugural celebration, the biggest in Virginia history.
(After the scandal however, Wilder distanced himself from Willey, even downplaying her role in the inauguration. “That’s Doug. He is about the most disloyal human being on the face of the earth,” Willey says.)
In fall 1989, she and Ed met the governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, at a Wilder fund-raiser at the Charlottesville estate of billionaire John Kluge.
One anonymous partygoer was quoted nine years later by the Richmond Times-Dispatch as saying when Clinton’s and Kathleen Willey’s eyes met, “something happened; you could see it. It was like there was no one else there.”
Willey says that’s untrue; she was with her husband the whole time. But she and Ed Willey were both impressed with Clinton: “He was very friendly, very outgoing, and very personable. My husband and I … had a long talk with him.”
When Clinton mounted his presidential campaign in 1992, Willey set up Virginians For Clinton, helping out with big fund-raisers and brushing shoulders with legendary socialite Pamela Harriman.
In October, Clinton and Willey met again when she waited with Lt. Gov. Don Beyer as Clinton disembarked his airplane for the presidential debate at the University of Richmond.
“[Clinton] got off the plane, saw me, recognized me, and gave me a big hug,” she recalls.
The Willeys were hoping to angle tickets for the debate. Before Clinton left, a woman came over and told her that Gov. Clinton wanted their number. “I said maybe we’ll get tickets out of this after all.” On Oct. 14, the day before the debate, the phone rang at Willey’s home. “It was him. He had lost his voice. He didn’t know where he was.
He said ‘I’m in Williamsburg, right? How far is that from Richmond?'”
Willey said, “You sound awful. It sounds to me like you need some chicken soup.”
Then, Willey says, Clinton asked if she would bring him some. “He said, ‘I’m surrounded by Secret Service agents and Hillary’s not getting here until tomorrow. Let me see if I can get rid of them and I’ll call you back in a couple hours.’ I said that was weird.”
Then, as promised, Clinton called back: “I said, ‘Before you say anything else I want you to know I’m not coming down there.’ I got off the phone as gracefully as I could. Before we got off the phone I asked him for tickets.”
At that point, she says she began to wonder if all the press rumors about Clinton’s womanizing were true. She never got the tickets.
After the UR debate, Willey guided Clinton through the crowd at a fund-raiser at the Richmond Marriott, making introductions for him. Six years later, another anonymous source claimed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch to have witnessed Clinton and Willey kissing that night. Willey says that’s not true, though she allows that the physically gregarious, feels-your-pain Clinton probably hugged her that night.
“The next time we saw him, we all went to Little Rock on election night,” Willey says, still a little breathlessly. “We were right in the throes of everything at the Excelsior [Hotel]. We were out in the crowd when he won the election. It was magnetic.”
Two days after the election, Willey’s home phone rang. It was Clinton.
“I said, ‘My God, you got elected. Can you believe it?'” Then the call waiting interrupted.
“I said, ‘Can you hold on a second?’ Ed said, ‘What are you doing putting him on hold for God’s sake?'” Willey laughs in recollection.
“He thanked us for our help and said he was going to have to go to Washington for a lot of dinners and meetings and parties and he said, ‘Maybe we can get together while I’m up here.’ You’re thinking to yourself, did he really say that and what did he mean by that?” After the election, Willey landed a position on the Presidential Inaugural Committee and later ended up working as a volunteer in the correspondence office.
Soon after, she says Clinton told her she deserved a better job at the White House.
The next day, Willey went to the Oval Office. “The door opens and President Clinton comes out. I was just dumbstruck. Up until that point, he’s surrounded by everybody. You can’t get near him. He said ‘Do you have a few minutes? Let me show you around the office.’ I get this 15-minute private tour of the Oval Office with Bill Clinton.”
Clinton showed her his campaign-button collection. “He’s sitting at John F. Kennedy’s old desk. You can’t get words out of your mouth. I felt like a 10-year-old because there I sat, the soccer mom, with the man Ed and I had worked very hard for. I got the big tour.”
After her meeting with Clinton, Willey went to work in the White House Social Office, commuting to Washington by train three days a week.
Life was good. And then it quickly became very bad.