Hillary's musings

March 29, 1994|By William Safire

THEY were dead wrong, all of them, when they talked Bill into appointing special counsel. I knew it; I told him, when we were off in Moscow, that starting a criminal investigation would come back to haunt us.

But they all thought it was so smart to raise the standard of judgment to a criminal level. That would be a way of hiding under a subpoena all the documentation that made me look like a greedy, unethical lawyer, keeping it from Congress and the press.

It was so easy for the staffers here in Washington, feeling heat about the transfer of files from Vince's office, to cave in to the Democratic establishment and damn media. Even Bernie, the only one who put our interests first, was certain that Fiske never went to indictment without an airtight case.

And what really gets me is those sanctimonious jerks who say "there's nothing to hide; if only Clinton had made full disclosure in the first place" and "it isn't the 15-year-old embarrassments that hurt, it's the cover-up."

What do they know about what happened back then and how it would look now? Did they imagine I made $100,000 on an investment of next to nothing in cattle futures, thanks to the advice of our poultry industry? We did what everybody did in a state capital, and not just in Arkansas -- but go try and say "everybody did it."

If Bill had hung tough back in December, as I pleaded with him to do, we would have had a month of press huffing and puffing and it would all be over.

But now we're being herded into an iron triangle: the grand juries, the press that pushes the counsel to call witnesses under oath and the cowards in Congress caving in to a televised-hearing soap opera.

That smarmy Leach, with his reasonable, nonpartisan, this-pains-me pose, is killing us. He's already taken away my argument that this is all a Republican plot to stop health care. Now he's attacking our central position that we lost money on Whitewater, which we can never abandon no matter what the figures show.

Bill struck the perfect note in his prime-time press conference. No more fingers-on-the-chest, "Who, me guilty?" and no more "no, no, no, no" pounding on the lectern. Just the statesman who won't be distracted. Sometimes he's just marvelous.

I can't do that; I know too much. For a few more weeks, I can give interviews to the gentler journalists but sooner or later somebody's going to hit me with a murder drill.

"When did you first learn of the criminal referral? What did you and your chief of staff discuss after her heads-up meeting with the RTC at the White House? What did you say to Bernie Nussbaum about evidence in that long meeting after Vince's death? Did you discuss the Whitewater or Madison files with Vince, with Bill Kennedy, with Web Hubbell, with the president?"

I can deflect those to the press, but when the grand jury calls -- as surely it will -- what can I say under oath?

And did anyone besides that Kansas City investigator secretly tape conversations? Will Susan McDougal turn on us?

The way the whole Rose firm is ratting on Web reminds me of time charges. Every lawyer has to detail the time, place, subject of meetings for billing to clients; what did we submit to cover that $26,000 in billing to Madison Guaranty? What did Vince or Web or Bill or I bill Whitewater or McDougal? Were those records shredded at the firm? God, I hope so.

What makes me sick at heart is how perfectly normal actions now gain the color of cover-up. So what if George blows sky-high when he hears the RTC hired Jay Stephens for civil recovery? That prosecutor made a Republican name for himself by entrapping Washington's Mayor Barry with a sex lure -- is that what I have to look forward to?

It's as if we're on a phantom train that's gathering momentum and we can't get off. It's easier for Bill -- he won't have to face those hearings and grand juries as I will, and I cannot pretend I don't know the details.

Why is this nightmare happening to us? We weren't rich, and money and political power always seek each other out; but now the usual, quiet statehouse dealings are being measured by impossible federal standards.

They tell me that after the Lance affair, when things began to go sour for President Carter, he called in Bob Strauss, who told him: "You know what your problem is? You used up all your damn luck getting here."

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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