Hillary on the Hot Seat

March 09, 1994

Lloyd Cutler's first favor to President Clinton was to serve as Whitewater-luminary-of-the-day, replacing Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bernard Nussbaum and other assorted characters in the White House entourage. This must have come as a relief, especially so far as Mrs. Clinton is concerned.

Mr. Nussbaum, the White House counsel who never understood his first duty was to the presidency rather than the president, is back in Manhattan. But the First Lady is very much in residence and, unluckily for her, very much on the hot seat.

As the convoluted details of the financial dealings in the Whitewater affair bubble to the surface, it is obvious that Mrs. Clinton was a far more central figure than her "I did nothing wrong" husband. It was her Rose Law Firm in Little Rock that represented Madison Guaranty S & L, bankroller of Whitewater, in its dealing with the government and then, in a quirk of Arkansas networking, for the government in dealing with Madison.

When asked at his news conference yesterday whether Mrs. Clinton would meet the press, the president prudently said that would be up to his wife. Mrs. Clinton has star quality as the most powerful First Lady in the nation's history. It has earned her raves and boos, of somewhat equal intensity, as she BTC masterminded drafting of the administration's elaborate health care reform, brought three of her law partners and lots of other pals into key government posts, was involved in the messy firing of the holdover travel office staff and reputedly tried to stonewall demands for a Whitewater investigation.

Because the Clinton White House has adopted a policy of what we might call "unlimited hangout," as contrasted to Richard Nixon's "limited hangout" on Watergate, it will be Mr. Cutler's mission to make full disclosure workable and credible. A Washington establishment figure who was brought in to save Jimmy Carter's administration from terminal parochialism, the respected 76-year-old attorney has signed on for four months to do the same thing for another Southern ex-governor.

Mr. Cutler is to enforce "firewalls" to prevent White House staffers from meeting or even chatting by telephone with Justice Department officials investigating Whitewater. It was Mr. Nussbaum's failure to detect the bad political vibes in such encounters that proved his downfall. But Mrs. Clinton more than Mr. Cutler is likely to determine whether Whitewater will prove a fatal or a passing distraction. Example: She just told Elle magazine that Whitewater is "a well-organized, well-financed attempt to undermine my husband and, by extension, myself" by engaging in "the wildest kind of paranoid conspiracy."

Republicans slathering over Whitewater may deserve such opprobrium. But chances are they are more than willing to engage in a national slanging match with the First Lady while the cagey Mr. Cutler would prefer the fire extinguisher to the gasoline can. Meanwhile, there's a world out there.

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