Trust in Clinton's Word is the Issue

April 10, 1994|By CARL M. CANNON

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Whitewater began as a routine, if disquieting, peek into a presidential candidate's personal finances. But it has become something else.

Whitewater has evolved -- and not just in the eyes of Republican opponents and snoopy reporters -- into a symbolic word for something that has always troubled a sizable segment of the voting public about Bill Clinton.

It's as basic as this: Can his word be trusted?

"This always was, is and will be Bill Clinton's Achilles heel," said Larry Sabato, University of Virginia political scientist. "Deep down, people don't believe he is telling them the truth, the whole truth."

"I'm gonna serve four years. I told you when I announced for governor, and that's what I'm gonna do." This was Mr. Clinton's 1990 promise to the people of Arkansas not to run for president. Months after his new term began, he was exploring a White House bid.

"We will lower the tax burden on middle-class Americans. . . ." Mr. Clinton made this pledge to cut middle-class taxes during the 1992 campaign. Rival Paul E. Tsongas accused Mr. Clinton of "pandering" for votes, and, as president, Mr. Clinton attempted a middle-class tax increase, in the form of a gasoline tax. Congress didn't go along.

"I didn't inhale." That also was a 1992 response, given grudgingly to queries about whether he'd ever smoked marijuana. For a decade, in Arkansas, Mr. Clinton had finessed this question by saying: "I didn't violate the drug laws of my country."

To Mr. Clinton's critics back home, these were the kind of answers someone gives his probation officer, not the voters. And after years of such statements, they hung a nickname on the governor: "Slick Willie." It was this baggage that Mr. Clinton brought to Washington -- and to the Whitewater affair.

As this scandal has unfolded, the president has seemed genuinely perplexed as to why it won't go away. Last week, at a town hall meeting in Charlotte, N.C., the questions that came from everyday Amer- icans provided a strong clue:

"Mr. President, with the recent news reports about the first lady's cattle futures earnings, and with all these Whitewater allegations, many of us Americans are having a hard time with your credibility," one woman said.

She is hardly alone. Although the public is critical of the press and Republicans for pushing Whitewater too hard, opinion polls this spring show half to two-thirds adults surveyed suspect the Clintons of hiding information about Whitewater.

Another questioner at the Charlotte town meeting cited the middle-class tax cut and several Bush foreign policies that Mr. Clinton criticized during the campaign but has left essentially intact. He also cited presidential statements about Whitewater that left him "incredulous" and asked: "Given all of that, why should we believe you as to Whitewater allegations or as to statements made of positions taken by you as president?"

In other words, it's not just the allegations about Whitewater that bother people; it's also the way the Clintons have responded.

In the two years since the New York Times story first detailed the partnership between Bill and Hillary Clinton and James and Susan McDougal in an Ozark land development known as Whitewater, Mr. Clinton, his wife and their aides have issued a series of denials and responses.

A review of these responses shows that many of them have been incomplete and misleading. Some have been proven wrong at a later date. And, despite the emotion that accompanies them, these responses are almost always couched in legalistic language.

"First of all, I've not been accused of doing anything wrong," Mr. Clinton said in Charlotte. "I'm still waiting for the first credible source to come up and say what I did was wrong."

Mr. Clinton has been accused of doing something wrong, however. His accuser's name is David Hale, and he maintains that Mr. Clinton pressured him into making a $300,000 Small Business Administration loan to Susan McDougal -- $110,000 of which found its way into Whitewater.

But the key word in Mr. Clinton's sentence, according to White House officials, is "credible." Mr. Hale, White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers says, is lying.

Interviewed in 1992, Mrs. Clinton referred to a cellular phone venture that netted her $46,000 after five years on a $2,000 investment as her most successful single investment.

In fact it wasn't. Her office released documents this month that show she made $99,000 in 10 months playing the commodities market.

Ethicist Michael Josephson refers to this kind of dissembling as "quick lies," and says that it is a common, if unfortunate, part of everyday life in modern America.

Asked in mid-March, "Did you tell a lie last week?" 38 percent of adults surveyed by the Yankelovich polling organization answered "yes."

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.