Whitewater Book Churns Political Rapids for Clintons


By James B. Stewart

Simon & Schuster, 479 pp., $25

IT is March 1994. President Clinton and his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton have decided on a strategy to deal with the Whitewater scandal, which has cost the administration dearly and continues to careen out of control.

The two hold separate press conferences to tell their version of an Arkansas land deal gone sour, the suicide of deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster, Mrs. Clinton's massive commodity-trading profits, and the White House handling of ensuing press reports and investigations.

About the same time, Mrs. Clinton's close friend and unofficial adviser, Susan Thomases, calls James Stewart, a writer for The New Yorker and SmartMoney magazines, former Page 1 editor of The Wall Street Journal, and author of a respected book about Wall Street in the 1980s. They want him to write their side of the story and will cooperate fully.

The result is not what they hope for. Stewart agrees to write a book, but on his terms. He meets with the first lady, who promises cooperation, but never delivers. Fascinated by the subject, Stewart goes ahead on his own. The result is ''Blood Sport: The President and His Adversaries.''

Interviewing most of the participants in Arkansas and Washington (with the notable exception of the Clintons), and relying on documentary evidence from government, banking, and individual sources, Stewart provides an excellent guide through the tangled issues that together have become known as Whitewater. Since investigations of the matter are incomplete, there may still be much to learn.

Stewart provides no startling proof of criminal wrongdoing on the Clintons' part, but he pulls together a disturbing pattern of behavior that makes it clear they are far from out of the woods on the matter.

Whitewater Development Company Inc. was a land deal that Clinton friend James McDougal cut Bill and Hillary Clinton in on in the late 1970s. At the time, it was obvious Clinton was about to become Arkansas's next governor. McDougal's idea was to help out the Clintons, who felt they were barely making ends meet on an income of $51,000 from her law practice and his salary as attorney general.

Instead, the project faltered and started losing money. Although the Clintons covered a small portion of the losses, an embarrassed McDougal paid for the lion's share, increasingly digging himself into a financial hole. When he later bought a savings-and-loan and a bank, he used questionable practices to lend himself money to cover mortgage-interest payments on Whitewater and other developments.

As McDougal's health broke and his wife, Susan, frantically tried to salvage their businesses, Hillary Clinton took over management of Whitewater for several years.

Stewart scrupulously finds no evidence that Governor Clinton gave McDougal favors or that funds from McDougal's Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan were funneled to Whitewater or the Clintons. But he writes that the Clintons, especially Hillary, jumped at several opportunities to make easy money with little concern that they were accepting special favors from people in businesses regulated by the state.

Their handling of the Whitewater investment verged on the reckless and displayed willful ignorance, he concludes. And when their behavior became public knowledge, ''nothing in the Clintons' past ... seems to explain the pattern of evasions, half-truths, and misstatements that have characterized the Clintons' handling of the story.''

The first couple, meanwhile, appear to have convinced themselves that they are victims of a politically inspired mainstream media conspiracy. Investigation of the Clintons and their acquaintances, some of whom are already under indictment, continue. Investigators are exploring the possibility that the president and first lady have engaged in obstruction of justice.

Saddest of all, perhaps, is the toll Whitewater has taken on Clinton friends and allies from and in Little Rock, Ark., people who were jettisoned as soon as the political heat got too intense.

Stewart's sorting out of the various facets of the scandal leaves much to the judgment of the reader, and of course, the courts. If you want a fair account of Whitewater, read this book - then decide for yourself.

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