President Clinton: Up to the Ankles In Whitewater

Whitewater has been dubbed a "mystery story" by the first lady's lawyer - and, indeed, it is. Its intricacies elude just about everyone. And perhaps the biggest mystery is the one faced by journalists like me who must figure out how to capsulize Whitewater's complexities in order to give readers a quick insight into what is going on.

The best effort to put in a nutshell the allegations surrounding Whitewater is Russell Baker's description of the scandal: "A bunch of people in Arkansas are charged with operating a small savings and loan as if it were their own property. The further suggestion is that President and Mrs. Clinton were in cahoots with this crowd when they invested in a real estate development named 'Whitewater.' "

The most serious question about the president's conduct is whether he used his influence as governor to bring about an illegal loan. He denies this.

The chief complaint against Hillary Rodham Clinton, it seems, is that she has dragged her feet in producing information needed to determine whether punishable actions have been taken in Whitewater-related transactions and in events during the White House travel-office controversy. Also, has Mrs. Clinton breached conflict-of-interest rules?

Mrs. Clinton's defense is that she has been an innocent bystander. She paraphrases a favorite children's verse about "a great big ugly man who did come up and tie a horse to me." She means, of course, that Whitewater is the horse that has come out of nowhere and been attached to her.

How much of a threat is Whitewater to the Clinton presidency? This question should be asked, given the recent Little Rock fraud and conspiracy trial, in which two of the president's former associates and another old friend were found guilty.

Interestingly enough, Clinton's deputy campaign manager, Ann Lewis, was a guest at a Monitor breakfast a few days before the jury came in with that decision. She said that Whitewater had "disappeared." It just didn't amount to anything anymore, she said - "not even a fly speck." Before this same breakfast group a week or so earlier, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, the Democratic Party chairman, had underscored his certainty that Whitewater would not even be the tiniest issue in the upcoming campaign.

How wrong they were. Like the reporters and other observers I talked to in advance of the Little Rock case, both Lewis and Dodd had concluded that the Arkansas jury, overwhelmed by the president's testimony, would decide on an acquittal, or at least a partial acquittal. They thought that such a finding would put an end to an already dying Whitewater issue.

But Clinton's testimony didn't help the defendants. The jury, it seems, found it irrelevant. Anyway, the convictions sent a big tremor through the ranks of Clinton supporters. The word has gone out: Whitewater is back.

At the very least, Whitewater - the probes and reports and, perhaps, the new disclosures - will snap at Clinton's heels all the way up to the election. Independent counsel Kenneth Starr is accelerating his investigations. Another Little Rock trial will soon focus on illegal contributions to then-Governor Clinton's campaign for the statehouse. And Whitewater prober Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York has a new spring in his step.

Will Whitewater then make a difference in the election? Most observers in Washington are providing what I would call a "cautious no." They think that Clinton will still win - "unless something big comes up."

Perhaps because I covered Watergate so closely as a reporter, I can see the possibility of bad days ahead for the Clintons. In some ways the Clintons' alleged direct involvement in Whitewater illegality could have more serious implications than Nixon's role in Watergate. Nixon personally had nothing to do with the Watergate break-in. His misdeeds were obstructing the investigation and withholding information.

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