Refusing to eat crow

The Clintons have been cleared of any wrongdoing in the Whitewater case, but the journalists who went after them are standing by their stories.

By Joe Conason
September 27, 2000 3:30AM (UTC)
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The murk surrounding the Whitewater affair was scarcely dispelled by the independent counsel's announcement, at long last, that Bill and Hillary Clinton would never be indicted for any offense related to the 1978 Arkansas land deal. Instead, an immediate and predictable tornado of spin by the journalistic claque that surrounded Kenneth Starr made the outcome as incomprehensible as this "scandal" has always been.

"Blood Sport" author James Stewart, whose service to the Starr prosecution provided him with a number of dubious scoops over the past several years, took to the New York Times op-ed page to declare that the independent counsel would be vindicated in the pages of history. Stewart proclaimed the original March 1992 front-page Whitewater exposé in the Times by Jeff Gerth to have been a "model" of investigative reporting (and never mind that it was both impossible to understand and replete with serious mistakes).


Stewart was soon followed by Susan Schmidt, the Washington Post reporter who gained notoriety as one of Starr's most pliant outlets. In a question-and-answer session on the Post's Web site, Schmidt spun furiously about the "significant criminal convictions" won by Starr and the issues of "character and honesty" raised by Whitewater. But one question put to Schmidt by a reader encapsulated the confusion and frustration that must be felt by any citizens still paying attention to this story: "Can you tell me precisely what the Clintons are supposed to have done and what the key evidence was?" Schmidt took a pass and quickly logged off. But that plaintive query deserves a candid answer, as do the many other inquiries that seem to have been left unaddressed by the mainstream media -- most of which seems eager to abandon Whitewater as the embarrassment it has been.

The short, accurate reply to the above question is that the supposed offenses of the Clintons kept changing to suit the desire of prosecutors (and some reporters) to keep the scandal alive. At the beginning, the main accusation was that the Clintons had profited from a fraudulent $300,000 bank loan arranged by their former partner James McDougal in a scam with Little Rock, Ark., judge and con man David Hale (who became Starr's key witness). There was never the slightest evidence that Hale was telling the truth about that loan, and the jury that convicted the McDougals of bank fraud in 1996 didn't believe him.

As the investigation meandered fruitlessly, new allegations emerged. Supposedly at the behest of her husband, Hillary Clinton had received thousands of dollars worth of legal work from McDougal as a thinly disguised bribe to keep regulators off his back. But the premises of this charge were altogether false: Mrs. Clinton earned no significant amount representing McDougal, and neither then-Gov. Clinton nor any of his appointees interfered with the regulators who eventually shut down McDougal's thrift, Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan. In fact, a Clinton-appointed bank regulator pleaded with federal officials to shut Madison well before they finally did so.


Later came the famous billing records controversy, in which Mrs. Clinton was alleged to have lied about her work for Madison and to have concealed the proof for 18 months after Starr subpoenaed her old records. Yet when those billing records eventually surfaced (at the beginning of an election year in January 1996), they proved that she had been telling the truth. Why she would have intentionally concealed documents that vindicated her so thoroughly seems mysterious indeed -- unless they were actually lost and then found, as she has said.

Along the way, ancillary accusations cropped up from time to time. For instance, when Stewart was promoting "Blood Sport," he suggested on ABC's "Nightline" and in Time magazine that Mrs. Clinton might be indicted for filing a fraudulent loan renewal form for Whitewater. As it turned out, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author had simply failed to notice that the loan document had two sides -- a back and a front - and that Mrs. Clinton had completed the document without error, let alone fraudulent intent. Stewart's revelation was merely another of many, many ominous but ultimately phony insinuations that stoked public suspicion.

What about those dozen convictons and two dozen indictments by the independent counsel? None of them -- not one - had any direct relationship to the Whitewater land deal. They were concocted by Starr and his deputies in hope of "turning" a Clinton confidant who would then provide damning evidence and testimony against the prosecutors' elusive White House targets. It is true that Starr won a conviction of Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, for example; it's equally true that the case against him had nothing whatsoever to do with the Clintons or Whitewater, and that Tucker was a longtime political enemy of the president who had no inside knowledge about him.


As for Webster Hubbell, the disgraced former associate attorney general was only the largest of numerous people Starr tried to "flip" in similar fashion. Rarely do Clinton critics mention that Hubbell was convicted of stealing from his clients and partners at the Rose Law Firm (including Mrs. Clinton, by the way). Hubbell didn't work on any Madison or Whitewater matters at the firm, so the notion that he would have known something incriminating about the Clintons seems far-fetched. The notion that he was paid off by Clinton cronies to keep him hushed up was investigated perhaps more thoroughly than any other theoretical offense by the OIC, and no significant evidence showing a hush-money scheme was discovered.

But didn't the Clintons "obstruct" the Whitewater investigation? Only to the extent that they tried to protect the same rights enjoyed by every other citizen who comes under the scrutiny of overzealous law enforcement. When the final report on Whitewater is at last filed by the OIC and then released months later by the courts, it will be clear how many thousands of documents were turned over by the Clintons to the prosecutors under subpoena. Had they failed to do so, they would have been prosecuted.


Enormous piles of paper - as Hillary Clinton once put it, virtually every check she and her husband ever wrote -- were likewise provided to the lawyers who investigated Whitewater for the Resolution Trust Corporation. Those attorneys, who prepared a 12-volume report citing thousands of exhibits, never seemed to feel that the Clintons were withholding information.

Starr and his supporters will continue to obscure these fundamental facts. They may offer a plethora of excuses for their own mistakes and failures. What they can no longer hide, however, is the transparent flimsiness of a case that preoccupied the nation, to so little ultimate purpose, for the past six years.

Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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