The mob scene outside the U.S. district court in Washington on March 10 bespoke a major media sensation. Packs of reporters and batteries of TV cameras besieged the courthouse doors. A gaggle of demonstrators waved placards—“Fess up” and “No coverup”—as some of the drama’s key players arrived or departed during the day. One man needed help from federal marshals to penetrate the crush: Robert Fiske, the New York City lawyer named by Attorney General Janet Reno on Jan. 20 as a special prosecutor with broad powers to investigate the case known as the Whitewater affair. It was Fiske who ordered the grand jury inquiry, which will continue this week in a third-floor courtroom closed to the public. He summoned 10 White House and U.S. Treasury officials and subpoenaed all relevant documents to determine whether contacts between them over the Whitewater case had violated proper legal practice. The mere occasion of the hearings stoked a controversy focused on President Bill Clinton and, more critically in recent days, on First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
As it happened, two of Hillary Clinton’s aides were the first to testify, chief of staff Margaret (Maggie) Williams and press secretary Lisa Caputo. They, along with Mark Gearan, the White House communications director who also testified last week, were summoned because they took part in one or more meetings with Treasury officers about Whitewater between last fall and early February. According to participants, those meetings were intended only to brief White House staffers on the fact that the Clintons had been named as possible beneficiaries in a 1980s Arkansas case related to Whitewater. But Republican opponents of the Democratic President, and critics of Hillary Clinton’s active role, raised a hue and cry about the appearance of White House meddling. That led on March 4 to FBI summonses of the staffers and the forced resignation the following day of chief White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum, the New York lawyer who had been a friend of Hillary Clinton for 20 years. It also provoked a spate of attacks on the Clintons, their friends and cronies, and against Hillary Clinton’s role as an unelected power wielder in Washington.
The Washington inquiry is a sideshow to the main event in Little Rock, Ark., where Fiske has initiated another grand jury inquiry into the Whitewater affair. The outlines of that case first arose two years ago during Clinton’s run for the presidency. Many specifics have since been filled in: how Arkansas politician Clinton and his lawyer wife in 1978, before he became state governor, invested in the Whitewater real estate project to develop vacation and retirement homes in northern Arkansas. Their partners were Susan and James McDougal, later the president of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan company in Little Rock. The Clintons say that they lost money when the project faltered in the early 1980s. Madison collapsed in debt in 1989 at a cost to the federal treasury of some $65 million, part of a widespread failure of savings and loans companies that has stuck the federal insurer with an estimated total debt of $200 billion. As a lawyer, Hillary Clinton represented Madison in some dealings with federal agencies.
Another aspect of Fiske’s investigation is the violent death last summer of Vincent Foster, Nussbaum’s deputy and a former law partner of Hillary Clinton in little Rock who has been linked romantically with her in some published allegations. After Foster’s body was found in a riverside Washington park on July 20 with a head wound and a pistol in one hand, police ruled it suicide. Documents related to Whitewater were taken from Foster’s office by White House staff before police could investigate. Several days later, the White House produced a note said to be a Foster suicide message.
Only last week in Washington, two newsletters delivered to
Maclean’s and other media outlets fed the rumor mill. One, a copyrighted letter distributed by Johnson Smick International Inc. of Washington, which an employee described as an economic consulting firm, cited reports on Capitol Hill that Foster’s body was somehow moved to the park beside the Potomac from an apartment said to be used by senior White House staff for brainstorming sessions. Another, a book promotion postmarked in Minneapolis, cast doubt on whether Foster’s death was a suicide. That one was issued in the name of Nick Guarino, who describes himself as a former Arkansas businessman and an ex-convict “who was railroaded for supposed white-collar crime,” adding, “that’s irrelevant.” Even if such reports are irrelevant, they foment an atmosphere of scandal, however misplaced and however often they are denied by the Clintons.
Despite an emotional defence of his wife last week by Clinton—“I do not believe for a moment that she has done anything wrong,” he declared, thumping a press conference lectern with his fist—media assessments persist that her Arkansas past and her recent influence on policies and staffing have endangered the Clinton presidency.
From the beginning of March, when pundit Michael Barone suggested in the newsweekly U.S. News and World Report that Hillary Clinton had become a political liability, to late last week, when columnist A M. Rosenthal in The New York Times raised doubts about “placing the First Ladyship into the centre of government—power by wedding ring,” the attacks on her have been relentless. Against that pattern, some voices have been raised in her defence—although as New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen noted: “It would be preposterous to cast Mrs. Clinton as the little woman, beaten up by the big bad boys in Congress.”
At least some of the beating up seems to have more to do with resentment in the political establishment over the Clinton administration’s readiness to do something completely different in government than Washington has experienced since Democrat Jimmy Carter, and activist First Lady Rosalyn Carter, challenged the governmental status quo. Only last week, a complaint on Capitol Hill provoked an outburst of editorial tut-tutting over the discovery that, more than a L year after Clinton took office, several of his senior !“ staffers have not got around to filling out forms to |f obtain permanent passes to the White House.
Such conservative discomfort with the Clintonites focuses on Hillary Clinton, but it encompasses the crew of bright, young men and women and older Clinton associates who operate in Washington with as much pugnacious disdain for the system as they displayed when they ran Clinton’s uphill election campaign. That approach was portrayed in The War Room, a documentary film that has been playing for months in Washington to largely youthful audiences, and in the Clintonites’ half-sardonic description of the White House team promoting the administration’s proposal to reform medical insurance as “the health care war room.” Syndicated columnist George Will expressed concern over what he termed the “moral pretensions” of a younger generation of leaders in a commentary last week. He concluded: “If the outcome of Whitewater is a diminution of their moral vanity, the episode will have been a blessing.”
For many Americans, the Whitewater affair is likewise little more than an episode in partisan politics. A Gallup poll conducted in the second week of March showed a decline in the popularity of the Clinton administration since January, but still recorded a substantial 50 per cent of respondents approving of the President and 58 per cent giving high marks to the job Hillary Clinton is doing.
Last week, outside the Washington courthouse, Maggie Williams responded to the shouted questions of reporters. “I’m really encouraged,” she said, “to be participating in something where the finding of fact is important, as opposed to innuendo and rumor mongering and gossip and sensationalism.” Bill and Hillary Clinton and the rest of their team can only hope, with Williams, that the truth found by Fiske will set them free from the Whitewater affair, and its drag on their ambition to get things done. □
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