Scandal cooling

April 12, 1994|By Frank Rich

MY Whitewater dependency was every bit as out of control as the next guy's, but about 10 days ago I slipped into remission.

Suddenly it was hard to hyperventilate about the story that only recently had tempted me to master cattle futures (to no avail, since I have no broker named "Red" to save me from bum steers).

You needn't consult polls to see that Whitewater has now fallen off a cliff in the public consciousness, to the pitiful point where even Madonna briefly usurped it in dinner conversations.

When James McDougal put sets of his once-coveted Whitewater documents on sale last week, takers were so few he would have been better off titling them "The Bridges of Madison Guaranty."

Why has Whitewater's torrent of drama ebbed to a slow trickle? It's not as if the story has been resolved, or that the Clintons have been cleared of all charges of impropriety. Questions remain unanswered, even if they don't point to a presidential abuse of power.

Whitewater won't truly be over until the last Rose Law Firm partner sings -- preferably in congressional hearings that will be televised day and night for our delectation.

For the moment, though, it's intermission. Herewith a few theories as to why:

1. VINCENT FOSTER, R.I.P. -- The White House deputy counsel's suicide was always the most exciting subplot of Whitewater -- the hook that pulled us into the duller nexus of tacky real estate and a tawdry S&L.

But after weeks of tabloid stories sighting Vincent Foster, both alive and dead, in more incriminating scenarios than Oliver Stone could dream up for Clay Shaw, ABC News aired autopsy photos knocking down the rumors; last week it was reported that special counsel Robert Fiske would soon confirm Foster's death as a suicide.

Without a corpse, Whitewater just doesn't have that zing. No wonder the right-wing press has searched mightily for a sexy angle to fill the Foster vacuum -- so far to no avail.

When the Wall Street Journal's editorial page floated the hint that a reporter for the New Republic had been assaulted in Little Rock for probing the Rose Law Firm, the alleged victim failed to corroborate the sinister spin.

Further proof that the right's cupboard of hard Whitewater news is bare: The American Spectator is back on bimbo patrol.

2. AL D'AMATO AND JIM LEACH, M.I.A. -- The main Republican point men on Whitewater have both retreated from the spotlight. The senator from New York vanished after his pose as Mr. Ethics turned him into a late-night talk-show and cartoonist punching bag. Representative Leach has been scarce since he followed his "J'accuse!" speech on the House floor with a disastrous "Meet the Press" performance in which Timothy Russert and Bob Woodward caught the soft-spoken, sweater-wearing

congressman with a sweaty excess of righteousness and a deficiency of evidence to back up his charge that the Clintons had made money on Whitewater.

3. THE ILLUSION OF FULL DISCLOSURE. -- President Clinton's pre-NCAA championship press conference, a slam-dunk of mostly easy Whitewater questions, produced a big bounce in the polls. Hillary Clinton has also belatedly proved somewhat more forthcoming to the press, talking generally (very generally) about Whitewater. (See last week's People.) Though the first lady is still avoiding Whitewater sit-downs with major newspapers, she is rapidly running out of protected venues. Connie Bruck, the reporter who unraveled Steve Ross, is now on Mrs. Clinton's case for the New Yorker.

4. THE PRESS CHASES ITS OWN TAIL. -- In the absence of new developments, journalistic self-flagellation over wallowing in Whitewater has become a self-feeding frenzy of its own, nearly as tedious as cattle futures.

Trying to push the main story along -- and not content to let its rival, Newsweek, make the only Whitewater error that week -- Time ran a misleadingly cropped, five-month-old photo on its cover, then bowed to the ensuing press outrage by dropping its prized George Stephanopoulos angle entirely in the next issue.

5. SUPREME COURT GUESSING GAME. -- Liberals and conservatives alike have a new mystery about which to speculate now and hold rancorous hearings later. For recovering Whitewater addicts already afflicted by nostalgia, it's probably too much to hope that Webster Hubbell will surface on the short list.

Frank Rich is a columnist for the New York Times.

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