Dole wishes upon a Starr

The lifeless GOP candidate's only hope is an October Whitewater surprise

By Andrew Ross

Published October 11, 1996 10:59AM (EDT)

"I'll wager you that Bill Clinton could get indicted and not lose much in the polls," Rush Limbaugh told faithful dittoheads recently. "I wish it would happen, just so we could see."

So, clearly, does Bob Dole, who is threatening to toss the "character" issue (i.e. Whitewater) into the air -- his last Hail Mary pass -- between now and Nov. 5. But merely mouthing off on the subject is not going to do the GOP candidate much good -- it certainly hasn't so far. He is going to need something new and concrete. And the only man who can provide that is Republican hatchetman, Kenneth Starr. But will Starr, also known as the independent counsel investigating Whitewater and related affairs, spring an "October surprise," and thus stir the embers of Dole's miserably moribund campaign? There are intriguing hints that he just might try.

In a small item in its "Washington Wire" today, the Wall Street Journal reports that Dole, in a handwritten fund-raising letter, claims that he has "just received information that could provide" the "winning margin," but, he adds coyly, "I'm not at liberty to tell you everything just yet." This ties in with a Newsweek report that the Dole campaign is gearing up for a massive campaign of negative radio ads, and that "The Dole camp's reluctance to discuss Whitewater and other scandals may be about to end." Adding fuel to the speculation, Starr himself, during an appearance at Pat Robertson's law school, said he was making "very substantial" progress on the White House "Filegate" affair. That Starr would openly comment on his investigations at a Christian Coalition-funded institution raises questions, once again, about the independent counsel's own integrity and political agenda. It also suggests that a missile is about to be loaded into the silo.

But choosing the specific target presents a major problem for Starr. Indicting the President himself on Whitewater-related matters is out of the question, at least for the time being. The alleged illegal campaign contributions trail Starr was pursuing via former White House counsel Bruce Lindsey was wiped out when Arkansas bankers Herbert Branscum and Rob Hill were acquitted in August of conspiracy charges by a federal court in Arkansas, much to the prosecutor's chagrin. The illegal $300,000 loan trail looks equally unpromising. The manic-depressive James McDougal, who is talking with prosecutors and said he fancies himself as Brutus to Clinton's Julius Caesar, is clearly mad as a hatter. Even worse for Starr, Susan McDougal, the object of all the presidential pardon speculation, is a) not talking, and b) disqualifying herself as a future prosecution witness anyway after publicly accusing Starr of being willing to suborn perjury if that's what it took to nail Clinton.

O.K., so how about going after Hillary for her role in the Travelgate affair? In the immortal words of her husband, this dog just won't hunt. Going after a First Lady for being less than completely candid about her role in the firings of the White House travel staff -- an action that was completely legal, if ineptly handled -- would be a risky action at any time. To do so just before an election
would instantly widen the gender chasm by another 10 points or so. Starr may be a zealot, but he's not an idiot. If Ms. Clinton is vulnerable anywhere else, it would be in the Castle Grande matter, which a recent FDIC report (leaked by congressional Republicans) indicates that she and the Rose Law Firm did more legal work on than was first thought. But Starr is going to have to spend many more months developing a paper trail to show that Ms. Clinton did anything remotely wrong in connection with the allegedly dubious development scheme in the 1980s.

Which brings us back to Filegate, the most unlikely, but also the most potentially devastating of the possible Clinton time-bombs. What could Starr mean when he told Pat Robertson's class he was making "substantial progress" in the investigation? That Bill's or Hillary's fingerprints had been found on the FBI records? That a witness has told him the records were gathered at the Clintons' specific instruction? In the leak-crazy atmosphere of Starr's investigation, we would likely have heard about that by now.

Those who are skeptical about an October surprise point to Justice Department guidelines (more like suggestions) that proceedings against major political figures not coincide with an election. They also suggest that Starr may be better off living to fight another day -- i.e., after the election, when he could make the Clintons' lives miserable for four more years.

However, Starr's true masters are the Republican right-wingers who got him the job in the first place. Starr must also be wondering just how much power he would have if, as now seems possible, Congress returns to Democratic control. That would make for a cold and lonely existence for the prosecutor. His congressional masters may also be thinking of calling on Starr for a diversion to shore up their own sagging campaigns. And with Rush Limbaugh, William Safire and the Dole campaign baying at his heels, don't be surprised if Starr pulls something unexpected out of his hat.

Quote of the day

Information supersnooze

"Every citizen can now read the Congressional Record. If you have insomnia, I recommend it."

-- President Clinton, extolling the Internet. (From "Democrats See the Future and It Works for Them," in Friday's New York Times)

Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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