The Great Frame-Up

There is a Whitewater scandal all right, but it has little to do with the benighted patch of land in the Ozarks or a failed Arkansas S&L.

By Andrew Ross

Published April 6, 1996 7:29PM (EST)

There is a Whitewater scandal all right, but it has little to do with the benighted patch of land in the Ozarks or a failed Arkansas S&L. It's about journalistic malfeasance, cynical political gamesmanship and a gross abuse of judicial power. In combination, these forces are gunning to frame the president of the United States.

The story, misreported from the start by the once-reliable New York Times, augmented by journalists too lazy to check out facts in front of their own eyes, has now become the No.1 best-seller in the form of James B. Stewart's "Blood Sport." As
Gene Lyons
of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette pointed out in a recent issue of SALON, a number of Stewart's basic assertions of what the Clintons did and said in regard to Whitewater are flat-out wrong. Lyons is no longer alone. Joe Conason, in the April 1 issue of the New York Observer, blows a huge hole in Stewart's most prized "finding" -- that Hillary Clinton lied on a Whitewater loan document in 1987. Guess what? She told the truth, which Stewart would have known had he actually read page two of said document. What happened? "I didn't see the second page in the documents that were produced to me," Stewart told Conason. Whoops!

A more devastating critique of the Pulitzer Prize-winner's book is to be found in the April 18 issue of The New York Review of Books. Historian Garry Wills actually took the time and trouble to read the detailed reports done for the Resolution Trust Corporation and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation -- by Republican attorneys, among others -- and compared them to Stewart's efforts. Wills discovers (as Gene Lyons has been shouting from the rooftops for months) that the reports systematically address every allegation made against the Clintons and find not a shred of evidence to support any of them. The RTC reports, as Wills notes, destroy the demonstrably false claims of Clinton involvement in shady dealings trumpeted by James and Susan McDougal, and the crooked Arkansas judge, David Hale -- the same three characters whose imaginative allegations Stewart appears to have swallowed whole.

As Wills plows through Stewart's book -- noting various direct contradictions from one passage to the next -- his sense of outrage grows. At one point he accuses Stewart of consciously endorsing the "fabrications" of crooks like David Hale. He also takes dead aim at the New York Times. "Jeff Gerth's Times articles, William Safire's rumblings about (Vincent) Foster's 'so-called' suicide, the distorted accounts of travelgate -- such work by the respectable press gives an opening to wild conspiratorialists. When an FDIC report lays to rest many of the charges implicit in Jeff Gerth's articles, the Times does not apologize for its errors but argues strenuously to continue the blatant political circus of Al D'Amato."

That particular circus, ringmastered by the co-chairman of the Bob Dole for President campaign, has been temporarily derailed, courtesy of a Democratic filibuster. But the increasingly grotesque activities of the so-called Independent Counsel, Kenneth Starr, continue unabated. It is now quite apparent that Starr fully intends to nail the Clintons for something, anything -- no matter what -- as evidenced by his embrace of David Hale as the star witness in the current federal trial of the McDougals and Arkansas governor Jim Guy Tucker. Hale, a convicted felon, who at one time ran 13 different dummy companies from one address, claims that Bill Clinton leaned on him for a $300,000 loan to Susan McDougal. The charges, hotly denied by both Clinton and the McDougals, came up, rather handily, as Hale was facing a blizzard of felony charges and considerable time in the hoosegow. None of which appears to faze Kenneth Starr.

Neither do Starr's own conflict of interests, which the ultraconservative former GOP Solicitor General appears to have embraced with relish. Unlike previous special prosecutors and independent counsels, Starr has refused to put his private law business on hold for the duration. He still represents the extreme right Bradley Foundation, which has given millions of dollars to anti-Clinton activist groups; he has also gone to bat for cigarette companies in their efforts to withhold documents from the government. And, as Joe Conason and The Nation discovered, Starr's own law firm, Kirkland & Ellis managed to reach a highly favorable settlement on claims filed against it by the Resolution Trust Corporation, whose role in Whitewater is being investigated by -- Kenneth Starr.

Such blatant disregard for elementary ethics raises anew the circumstances by which Starr got to be the Whitewater prosecutor in the first place. He replaced former U.S. Attorney Robert Fiske Jr., a Republican, whose preliminary report exonerating the Clintons proved intolerable to the GOP-dominated Congress. In their search for a more malleable replacement, one of the Clinton-hating Senators from North Carolina, Lauch Faircloth, an outspoken member of Sen. D'Amato's Whitewater committee, had a cozy lunch with Judge David Sentelle, whose judicial committee appointed independent counsels. Soon after, Starr, who no doubt impressed Faircloth with his work on Paula Jones' sex harassment suit against President Clinton, got the prosecutorial nod. And guess who got a job soon after as a receptionist in Sen. Faircloth's office? Judge Sentelle's wife.

One can only guess at the ultimate reward that awaits Starr, apart from the malicious pleasure of trying to destroy a Democratic president. A seat on the Supreme Court would be a pretty good bet. But with the President continuing to look good in the opinion polls -- especially in the key Midwest states -- a Starr-engineered frame-up is even more urgently required if the Republicans are to regain power. Troopergate, travelgate, and if he can't nail the President, how about the First Lady? As Garry Wills concludes, "There are levels of the despicable that Whitewater 'analysts' have been plumbing to new depths. That is the real scandal."

Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

MORE FROM Andrew Ross

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton