The silent partner

March 11, 1994|By Frank Rich

AMAZINGLY, Tuesday was the second anniversary of the New York Times article that broke the Whitewater mess -- as Whitewatergate is known to those of us who have not yet convicted the president.

But it was just last weekend that the 16-year-old collision of a failed land deal and a failed S&L, a story comprehensible only with Rube Goldbergesque flow charts, became a national craze.

What changed? In substance Whitewater may have little in common with Watergate -- an abuse of power by a president in office -- but in form Whitewater has now started to mimic Watergate as cheesily as "Pretty Woman" replays "Pygmalion."

Last week we got our first smoking gun (the meetings of White House and Treasury aides) and Saturday night mini-massacre (of Bernard Nussbaum). Not to mention subpoenas by a grand jury, shredded documents, threats of congressional hearings and the vice president's infelicitous talk of a White House "firewall" ("firestorm" meets "stonewall"?).

Hovering above it all is Vincent Foster's suicide, far more compelling than Watergate's one mysterious fatality (remember the air-crash death of Mrs. Howard Hunt?).

Asked by the Washington Post why television coverage of Whitewater was minuscule late last year, a CBS News producer said, "It's one of the most difficult stories to explain that I've ever encountered."

This week an ABC hand said why the once-impenetrable yarn now leads the evening news: "Whitewater is no longer all in the past. It has a foreground set in the White House, with a clear narrative line being played out in real time. A perfect television scenario."

Viewers can indeed follow the White House Whitewater drama of 1994 without even understanding the Arkansas Whitewater story 1978. What will hasten the narrative's end?

Those of us who would like to see Bill Clinton's promising administration get back to serious business cannot just wish the mess away, especially given the White House's propensity to "screw up" (David Gergen's spin) or "cover up" (as Mr. Integrity, the Republican Senator Alfonse D'Amato, insinuates). But one early step was suggested during the president's Tuesday news conference with his new counsel, Lloyd Cutler, when Brit Hume asked if the first lady might hold her own Whitewater press conference.

"I think I'll let her speak for herself," was Mr. Clinton's non-reply. To which the unspoken follow-up question must be: Why doesn't she?

Hillary Rodham Clinton, after all, is among the most revered people in the country. Many, possibly most, Americans have accepted her in her precedent-breaking role as a partner in her husband's government. And, as the week's events have made perfectly clear, she is at or near the center of nearly every Whitewater event, '78 and '94.

Since she has the political capital, the firsthand knowledge, the poise and brains to answer many of the growing list of Whitewater questions, why not do so? Especially since the health-care plan she steered hangs in the balance.

Yet Mrs. Clinton persists in ducking the press. The same counterproductive secrecy that whipped up suspicions about her task-force meetings on health care still rules. When she appeared in New York last week to tour a hospital, reporters were kept out of conversational range. Not even the subsequent departure of her mentor, Mr. Nussbaum, from Washington inspired a public word.

The press blackout is not total. Mrs. Clinton did find time in New York to have tea with gossip columnists who could be counted on not to ask about Whitewater.

Last Friday she also gave an interview to Elle magazine -- embargoed until April. The few vague excerpts in an Elle press release -- in which Mrs. Clinton attacks her critics instead of answering them -- stand as her sole comments on recent Whitewater eruptions.

Like everything else that does not parse in this mess, it makes no sense that Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has brought the job of first lady into the late 20th century in every other respect, would follow a strictly restricted press diet more appropriate to Pat Nixon.

If she were true to herself and spoke up for herself, she might put the brakes on Whitewater-Watergate analogies that increasingly leave the administration twisting slowly, slowly in the wind.

Frank Rich is a columnist for the New York Times.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.