Whitewater: Parade of the red herrings

After spending $30 million, poring over 250,000 documents and investigating half the state of Arkansas the Republicans have produced nothing but "suspicions."

By Andrew Ross

Published January 28, 1996 2:07PM (EST)

Drip. Drip. Drip. Another "newly-discovered" Whitewater document here, more "contradictory" testimony there, subpoenas everywhere. Fresh "revelations," tossed out like morsels of bread, devoured by the angry flock of crows whose cawing, day by day, gets louder: "Cover-up." "Obstruction of justice." "Impeachment."

White House aides call it "Groundhog Day," after the movie in which Bill Murray experiences the same day over and over. And it won't end any time soon. Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr is not likely to report much before election day. The Clintons' one-time partner, Jim McDougal, faces a federal trial on charges similar to those he has already been acquitted of in state court.

House and Senate committee will continue to hold hearings, and are likely to range into ever more baroque territory. Watch for Sen. Alfonse D'Amato's committee's efforts to raise dark suspicions about the Clintons' relationship with a convicted cokehead, while a House panel attempts to link them to drug smuggling and money laundering at Mena Airport in Arkansas. Having lost the budget battle, been trumped by Clinton on the values battle, and saddled with a lemon of a presidential candidate, the Republicans have nothing left but Whitewater -- and the "character issue."

They've already spent about $30 million, gone through 250,000 documents, and indicted or subpoenaed virtually the entire state of Arkansas, so it's astonishing how little they have. Investigations conducted by the Resolution Trust Corporation and by former independent counsel Robert Fiske have exonerated the Clintons. But that wasn't enough.

"Our deepest suspicions," editorialized the Wall Street Journal recently, "are that back in Arkansas the Clinton tag team was engaged in a pattern of sleazy operations, and that when they arrived in Washington they abused the powers of the Presidency to thwart investigation of them...These are perhaps only suspicions, but various people keep asking."

That's it. After three years of constant pounding, reams of newsprint, and stacks of public records gone over with the finest of fine-toothed combs, that is the sum of the Wall Street Journal's judgment. It has "suspicions," albeit of the "deepest" nature. That's only slightly more than Ted Koppel got out of D'Amato on a recent "Nightline." What crimes, Koppel kept asking, are the Clintons supposed to have committed? D'Amato buried his head in his notes and mumbled about the need for more documents.

But neither does one come away from this affair with a particularly enhanced view of the Clintons. Not only did they respond in the most boneheaded ways as the Whitewater stories broke, they appear to have exercised execrable judgment during their Arkansas days. Why, for example, would they go into business in the first place with a demonstrable loose cannon like James McDougal -- known, according to Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter, Meredith Oakley for "his volatile temper, his inattentiveness and the wild mood swings that were eventually diagnosed as manic-depression."

The handling of "Travelgate" was every bit as sorry. The Clintons had every right to fire the
White House travel office staff; it does, after all, serve "at the pleasure of the President." And as a Peat Marwick audit showed, the office was hardly a paragon of financial probity. But the Clintons' timing -- coming on the heels of the notorious $200 Christophe haircut and the "Troopergate" sex tryst allegations -- could not have been more inept. "However valid the criticisms of the travel office were, the matter couldn't have been handled worse," wrote Elizabeth Drew in "On the Edge," her closely-reported account of the first 18 months of the Clinton administration. "The picture that was drawn was of cronyism and looseness with the truth."

None of which qualifies as a crime, but all of which is red meat for a press corps that the writer James Fallows says "has fallen into the habit of portraying public life in America as a race to the bottom."
It's particularly appetizing in what conservative scholar Suzanne Garment has called the era of "scandal politics," whose ringmasters "are not content to throw the book at a political figure who becomes their target; instead they spend great effort figuring out how to hit him with the whole library." Spread by imitation and retaliation, she writes, scandal politics "has become not only self-reinforcing but virtually endless in its prospects. It exercises a power over government and the public agenda that is now out of proportion to the benefits it brings in."

What benefits, if any, will Whitewater bring? Another failed presidency? Perhaps it's all a cunning Clinton plot, filled with false leads, red herrings and suddenly -- hey, presto! -- a pull of the handkerchief, and there's nothing there! Now, who is the audience most likely to be mad at? Then again, the Republicans could always dredge up those old Troopergate trysts and jobs-for-silence allegations. Of course, no sooner is Bob Dole ensconced in the Oval Office than the Democrats will take a hard look at his wife's business dealings ("Liddygate"). Or if it should be Lamar Alexander, well, he was the governor of one of the less clean states in the Union; there has to be something there ("Memphisgate").

"Self-reinforcing and endless in its prospects." The circus will never end.

Is there anything to Whitewater? Are there serious criminal ethical issues at stake or are we spending tens of millions of taxpayers' dollars for purely political reasons? Go to Table Talk, click on the Issues category and go to the Hillary Clinton topic, where you will find the debate in full swing. (Remember to register if you haven't already done so.)

Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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