After a six-month surge in Bill Clinton’s popularity and rising criticism of prolonged official inquiries into his past, the U.S. President’s election-year momentum is suddenly in danger from a bad-news week. Investigations into the so-called Whitewater scandals produced guilty verdicts against three Clinton associates in an Arkansas court. That case swerved menacingly close to the President and Hillary Rodham Clinton. A Supreme Court sideshow in a sexual harassment suit against Clinton focused attention on his reputation as a womanizer and his record of ducking military service. And at week’s end, emboldened Republican critics brandished a contempt-of-Congress motion in a tussle with Clinton aides over another longstanding accusation. The question in Washington is whether Clinton’s bad week will haunt him to election day,
Nov. 5. Yes, says Republican strategist Charles Black: “Whitewater and all these related scandals are going to be on the agenda.” Democrat counterpart James Car ville says not. “It’s off the radar,” he insists. “The country doesn’t care.”
Whether voters care, or are largely bored and baffled by Whitewater complexities, one certainty is that there is more to come. On June 17, a special Senate Whitewater committee led by New York Republican Alfonse D’Amato is slated to disgorge findings sure to scorch the Clintons. The same day in Little Rock, the Arkansas capital where Clinton was state governor for 12 years and his wife a leading lawyer, two bankers go on trial accused of felonies that include charges of illegal funding for Clinton’s Arkansas electioneering. Two congressional House panels are also pursuing the Clintons.
One accuses Hillary Clinton of provoking a 1993 dismissal of White House travel office staff to make way for friendly replacements. That is the so-called Travelgate offshoot of Whitewater. It generated last week’s contempt threat on the ground that the White House is withholding evidence. When Clinton officials delivered some of the documents demanded, inquiry committee chairman William Clinger, a Pennsylvania Republican, declared the handover to be only “the beginning of a victory.”
Ultimate victory means defeating Clinton and reinforcing the Republican Senate and House majorities in the November elections. And after long months in which the relentless Republican pursuit seemed not only to have lost the public’s attention but
also annoyed the voters, a convergence of anti-Clinton events appeared to assist the Whitewater crusade. First, Clinton lawyer Robert Ben-
nett amended a written argument to the U.S. Supreme Court for delaying prosecution of a lawsuit by former Arkansas clerk Paula Jones. She claims that Clinton, while governor in 1991, made crude sexual advances. Bennett, noting that the President is military commander-in-chief, had originally invoked a law that postpones such cases against active servicemen. Republicans ridiculed that claim for Clinton, who evaded
REPORT FROM WASHINGTON
Vietnam War duty. They readied a TV ad denouncing Clinton for “trying to avoid a sexual harassment lawsuit claiming he is on active military duty.” Bennett, while assailing the Republican reaction as “a phoney political stunt,” reduced his briefs military-exemption argument to a footnote.
Then, at an Arkansas trial arising from
inquiries led by special federal counsel Kenneth Starr—a Republican Washington lawyer attacked by Democrats and others for simultaneously representing right-wing groups and clients dealing with the government—the jury entered guilty verdicts against three defendants accused of fraud. Clinton had earlier testified in their defence via closedcircuit TV. Judged guilty and facing potential sentences of years in prison are James and Susan McDougal, former business partners of the Clintons in what later proved to be a losing 1978 investment in an Arkansas resort development named Whitewater. The third person found guilty was Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, the Democrat successor to Clinton, who promptly announced his resignation. A Republican lieutenant-governor succeeds him.
White House press officers stressed that Clinton was not involved in transactions at issue in the Arkansas trial. They recycled reams of jury quotes indicating that Clinton’s testimony had been believed, if not effective against documentary evidence of fraud. But last week’s convictions raised to 14 the number of Clinton associates in Arkansas—bankers, lawyers and businessmen—who were found guilty or pleaded guilty during the past two years to fraud and other offences.
Much of that has passed by the public, surveys indicate. But Republicans seized on a poll conducted as
the Little Rock verdicts were handed down on May 28 and the next day. In fact, the CNN -USA Today sounding showed scant change in approval ratings for Clinton versus his Republican challenger, Bob Dole. Clinton led by 16 percentage points, 56 to 40, compared with a 58 to 38 count just over two weeks earlier. But to a poll question on whether Clinton was “hiding something” in the Whitewater case, 60 per cent of respondents agreed, compared with 51 per cent a year earlier. The Clintons and the Democrats have to hope that the polls reflect a temporary blip—and that editorialists of the capital’s daily newspapers are wrong. The liberal Washington Post concluded that the Little Rock verdict “may mark the opening of a new phase in Whitewater,” while the conservative Washington Times concluded that “it just doesn’t look good for the first couple.” □
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.