WASHINGTON — HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, who has long prided herself on the unusually substantive role she's played as first lady, now looks as if she's in an unusual amount of political trouble.
The reason: the sudden surfacing of old paperwork. These just-revealed documents make Mrs. Clinton appear to have been less than forthcoming about her involvement in two past controversies - the failed Whitewater land venture and the 1993 White House travel office dismissals.
The revelations don't necessarily tie her to anything illegal. But they raise awkward questions about her credibility just when her husband's race for reelection is beginning in earnest - leading some observers to conclude that she will inevitably have to lower her profile in the months ahead.
"Given recent events, I expect she will play a relatively modest role in the 1996 campaign," says Roger Porter, a professor of government at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., and former economic policy adviser to Republican presidents.
That doesn't mean Mrs. Clinton's problems will directly affect the president's chances at the polls. President Clinton won election in 1992 despite negative reaction to his wife's comment that as first lady she wouldn't just stay home and "bake cookies."
But the '96 race promises to be a tough one, and White House officials are loath to have to forgo extensive campaigning by the first lady. As recently as November, her approval ratings were close to 60 percent - considerably higher than those of the president himself.
Over the weekend, White House officials slammed the new charges against Mrs. Clinton as a political assault, not a dispassionate search for the truth. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, head of a Senate panel investigating the Whitewater deal, "is a classic political henchman," said administration spokesman Mark Fabiani. "He is someone who is out to inflict political damage. That's his sole purpose here."
But the snow squall of bad news for the White House seemed likely to continue this week, as both House and Senate panels have scheduled continuing hearings into Hillary Clinton issues, weather permitting. And even White House officials admitted that the manner in which the long-sought documents about her appeared last week, after administration sources had denied their very existence, made things look bad - at least for now.
EVERY press secretary worth their lectern in Washington knows that as far as possible one should not give the appearance of hiding anything. An old political saw holds that often it's not the original events that get you in trouble - it's anything that smacks of a cover-up.
Specifically, the latest developments surrounding Mrs. Clinton involved these events:
*Memos from White House aides that suggest the first lady had a much more direct role than she has admitted in firing travel office officials in 1993. One missive, from an official named David Watkins, said that in effect Mrs. Clinton ordered the firings. (In a Newsweek interview, Mrs. Clinton denied this was the case. Watkins has said the memo was a "rough draft" and was never sent to its intended recipient.)
Another document penned by a special assistant discussed whether Mrs. Clinton's role in the travel office affair should be made fully public. If her "interest" was not disclosed, "you risk merely compounding the problem by getting caught in half-truths," wrote the assistant.
At the time, the White House defended the travel office dismissals as necessary due to questions about financial mismanagement. The apparent interest of close Clinton friends in obtaining lucrative travel office contracts, however, turned the affair into a political mess.
*Law-firm records discovered packed with Clinton family memorabilia also suggest that Mrs. Clinton, as a private attorney, was much more involved with the troubled Madison Guaranty savings and loan, and thus the failed Whitewater land deal, than she has previously said.
The records show that as a partner in Little Rock's prestigious Rose law firm Mrs. Clinton billed Madison Guaranty for 60 hours of work - and that she worked on an option document related to a Madison land transaction that regulators now charge was a sham designed to evade laws restricting the amount of money S&Ls could invest in real estate. The collapse of this transaction, which involved a 1,000-acre parcel known as Castle Grande, eventually cost the government $4 million, regulators charge.
Simply doing legal work on the matter does not mean Mrs. Clinton knew that there was anything wrong with the transaction. Indeed, White House officials point out that the amount of Mrs. Clinton's work for Madison comes to less than one hour a week over the 15-month period involved.
But the records edge the Clintons closer to James McDougal, Madison's main owner and their partner in the failed Whitewater land deal. Mrs. Clinton has said she doesn't remember working on the Castle Grande deal.
If nothing else, the new questions come at a bad time for both Mrs. Clinton and the administration. This week, she is supposed to launch out on a national tour to promote her new book on raising children - an effort White House officials had seen as key to softening her image in time for the '96 campaign.