SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

Desperately Seeking Scandal - A Whitewater script right out of Pirandello

Published June 19, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)


For more than a year, Alfonse D'Amato's
Whitewater Committee has resembled less an investigative body than a theater troupe, and the Senator from New York appears to have become a disciple of Luigi Pirandello.

The absurdist Italian playwright liked to undermine his audience's expectations by having actors step out of character to criticize their lines, argue among themselves or take up disputes with actors planted in the audience. The results could seem chaotic and hilariously unsettling. But it was all carefully scripted.

Just so Honest Al's committee, whose Republican members made a great show of conducting an "investigation" while in fact conforming faithfully to a fictive script concocted by GOP scenario writers in which the President of the United States falls in the final act. Pirandello's best-known play was "Six Characters in Search of an Author." How does "Ten Republicans in Search of a Scandal" sound?

The main plot twist was to link two separate events: the tragic suicide of Vince Foster with the subsequent Whitewater investigation -- no matter how unrelated they were. To make sense of the script, as it has been compiled in D'Amato's final report, it's necessary to accept each of the following givens:

  • That the Clintons had guilty Whitewater secrets to hide, even though none of them, in the four years that the story has been percolating, has ever materialized.

  • That Foster had either died because of those guilty secrets (which have yet to materialize), and/or had left incriminating documents in his files -- none of which has ever been found. Nor, presumably, were any copies ever made of said documents, because they've never been found, either.

  • That Hillary Rodham Clinton, her aides Maggie Williams and Susan Thomases, and former White House chief of staff Bernard Nussbaum conspired urgently to prevent the discovery of said "documents" in the days following Foster's death. This at a time when Whitewater was neither a political issue nor subject to official investigation.

  • That the same quartet, experienced lawyers and politicos all, further conspired to perjure themselves repeatedly before Senate investigators. To that end, Republican staffers produced lists of telephone calls between and among the alleged conspirators that established beyond a reasonable doubt that they had, indeed, spoken with one another several times during the day and a half between the shocking discovery of the body of Foster, a close personal and political friend, and the search of his office.

Over many months of hearings and with scores of witnesses, D'Amato's committee got exactly nowhere in their attempts to prove any of this. Without exception, every single witness testified -- repeatedly -- that the search of Foster's office was never discussed with the First Lady. Police investigators testified -- unanimously -- that they had neither the intention, nor any legal right, to examine any of the Clintons' personal legal papers that might have been in Foster's office. Nor would there have been anything wrong if Hillary had gotten involved. Both as Foster's friend and his client, she had every legitimate right to concern herself with the issue. The evidence is, however, that she did not.

Their absurdist scenario contradicted by the facts, the GOP inquisitors refused to alter it. Instead, they badgered witnesses like Williams and Thomases, and accused them of lying. Thomases was called back five separate times. Williams took and passed a lie detector test twice. Made no difference to the prefabricators.

Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) may have said it best. "If you get a witness who says, 'Oh, I don't recall,' the immediate accusation is, 'you're being disingenuous.' If you have witnesses with conflicting testimony, the allegation is, 'Someone's lying.' And if you have witnesses that have consistent statements, 'It's a conspiracy.'"

Pirandello would have been proud.

Gene Lyons is a political columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He wrote "To Make A Cow Laugh: A Bad Book About the Phony Whitewater Scandal," a review of James Stewart's "Blood Sport," in the July issue of Harper's Magazine. His new book, "Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater," is due out shortly from Franklin Square Press.

Through a looking glass, darkly

Neither side can handle the truth about Whitewater



Take one: the "Billary" Clintons are lying, arrogant abusers of government, whose trek to the White House occurred along the shadiest and most corrupt of paths.

Take two: The President and the First Lady are upright citizens naive only in their underestimation of Washington's nasty, power-hungry partisans, who maliciously transformed simple misunderstandings into wicked misdeeds.

Such are the diametrically opposed pictures presented in the final reports issued by majority Republicans and minority Democrats of the Senate Whitewater committee. Yet this may be one of those instances when the truth lies somewhere in the murky in-between.

The Republicans, $1.3 million, 13 months, 250 witnesses and 19,729 pages later, still have trouble defining precisely what the scandal is, or was about -- though they had no problem identifying the target. "Most roads lead from the First Lady and to the First Lady," declared Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), at a GOP press conference after the report was released. Like hounds on a hare, the GOP report chased the First Lady to Arkansas and back, accusing her of impeding investigations and of covering up her allegedly questionable work as a private attorney in Little Rock.

They are not entirely off the mark in viewing with suspicion the manner in which the White House handled Vince Foster's office following his suicide. But what did that episode mean? "Evidence strongly suggests," the report asserts, that once Mrs. Clinton learned of Foster's death, she "realized" it was connected to Travelgate, or to Whitewater, and "dispatched her trusted lieutenants to contain any potential embarrassment or political damage." Yet there is scant proof that the alleged hanky-panky in Foster's office--if there was any -- was connected to either affair. It might be connected, but the Republicans don't come close to demonstrating it.

Though the First Lady ends up in the starring role, D'Amato and Co. did not have the courtesy to ask her to testify. Imagine staging a witchhunt and not inviting the witch.

The public did not want the First Lady "demeaned," D'Amato said, in explaining why he did not request her appearance. Yet the report demeans away, accusing her of near-criminal behavior. D'Amato rightfully noted how the memories of some Clintonites seemed to dim when they came before the committee. Forgotten, in his righteous indignation, was the recent revelation of a suspicious stock trade he allegedly made in 1993. D'Amato calls that old news -- but what Hillary Clinton did in private practice over ten years ago is not. Absent from the Republicans' triumphant press conference was committee member Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), whose efforts on behalf of a timber bill that shored up a bank in which he holds more than $1 million in stock was just revealed.

The Democrats, given the heavy burden of defending the Clinton administration, see no wrong emanating from the White House. They are not troubled by mysteriously appearing billing records. They are not offended by the absurd spin that some White House officials placed on inconvenient disclosures. The conflicts in testimony between the First Lady and others regarding her law practice and its connection to a troubled S&L are, well, just conflicts. They cannot recognize that the Clintons committed enough "slip-ups" -- if that's all they were -- to raise the suspicions of even the most trusting of citizens.

Whitewater, like "travelgate" and the emerging "filesgate" scandal, is typically Clintonian: These incidents prompt overheated White House protests of innocence followed by bumbling responses to disclosures. They generate blistering attacks from political foes but little in the way of air-clearing investigation. All these matters seem to involve wrongdoing of some proportions. Each of them requires a few hearings and a look from an outside counsel to assure the rest of us that nothing more nefarious is afoot. But none seem to represent a constitutional crisis or political corruption much above and beyond the norm.

Still, in the manic atmosphere of headline-hype and debate-by-newsbite, somber and carefully constructed investigation and reasoned criticism has no home. That is a far more disturbing conclusion than anything found in the Senate's Whitewater reports.

David Corn is Washington editor of The Nation magazine.

Quote of the day

Oppo world

"The saddest reason this story will linger is the fact that the conspiracy theories are so plausible in the opposition-research culture that has taken over Washington. Opposition research is the once-dark campaign art of delving into records of a political opponent in search of damaging information.

What was once a dark corner of the political world has become a central feature of daily life in Washington, for both parties. So when Republicans charge that the White House was using FBI files to dig for political dirt, the charge is simply too believable. Here is the blunt truth about Washington circa 1996: There are way too many people on the public payroll, at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, spending their time digging into the records of their political opponents.

Is that what was going on in this case? I don't know; there remain good reasons to doubt it. Why would Bill Clinton be silly enough to compose an enemies list, and why would the search for files end with the letter 'G' if that's what was happening? But there is enough of this kind of thing going on today that the notion is too believable. That's the real tragedy in the files episode."

-- Gerald F. Seib, "Capital Journal": "FBI Files Saga: Why It Lingers, What It Means," in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal.

By Gene Lyons

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at

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