In N.H., Whitewater made 'damned fools' of the press

ON THE POLITICAL SCENE

April 16, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

HOOKSET, N.H. -- In New Hampshire, the travail of President Clinton and Whitewater seems remote. Here in Hookset, they are up in arms because some guy wants to open a topless club. All over New England they are wondering what's wrong with Roger Clemens.

But if there is a consensus about anything, it is that the press has done a lousy job on Whitewater. Nobody understands it. Clinton supporters think the media has gone too far. His critics believe the reporters are covering up for him.

As Joe Keefe, a Manchester lawyer about to become Democratic state chairman here, put it, "The press is kind of getting a black eye."

Marie Lavoie, a young mother pushing her 15-month-old son in a stroller, is more explicit: "It seems like everyone in the news media is absolutely fascinated with all this stuff, but they've never explained what's the big deal. So the Clintons made some money, so what?"

"We've still got all kinds of economic trouble in this state," says Bill Kelly, who runs an auto-body shop near Concord, "and all you guys write about is this dumb real-estate deal and how much money Clinton lost. That's ancient history."

George Bruno, a longtime Clinton friend and one of his early supporters here, points out that the issue may be more alive in New Hampshire than elsewhere right now because of the parade of Republican presidential prospects visiting the state and, not incidentally, using the occasion to talk about Whitewater to the press and their party audiences. "The pot gets stirred every time Dole or Gramm comes into the state," he says.

A recent survey found Clinton favored by 53 percent -- in a state he carried over George Bush and Ross Perot with 39 percent of the vote two years ago. But random interviews with about 35 voters suggest there is some uneasiness even among his supporters.

"I wish to hell he would have just laid the whole thing out at the first bell," says Ray Grenier, a salesman who lives up near Laconia. "The problem is he left the door open, and the media just keeps picking away at it because he makes it look like there's something to hide. I voted for him, but now I'm not so sure anymore."

A beefy beer distributor who didn't want his name used was more blunt. "Clinton's tricky, and you people [in the press] let him get away with it," he says, gesturing vigorously with an order form. "But this stuff is just peanuts, and the reporters look like damned fools."

Although voters here seem confused about just what is involved in Whitewater, they do know all about the $14,000 tax delinquency the Clintons paid last week. "They're in a different TTC class from most of us," says Tom Jenkins, a retired postal worker. "I couldn't afford to pay that kind of back taxes, but then again, I would have paid in the first place."

Says Marie Lavoie: "I can understand how that happened, but it makes it look like they were a lot better off than we thought. If you can overlook that $6,000 [the profit on a transaction on which the Clintons failed to pay tax in 1980], you're not worrying about where the rent is coming from next week."

A middle-aged teacher who voted for Perot in 1992 puts it this way: "That's what the Perot thing was all about -- all these people in politics living in a different world from the rest of us. . . . I think Clinton has done some good things, but he is not what he represented himself to be in that campaign."

"Voting for Perot was stupid," she adds, "and I kind of wished I had voted for Clinton. Now I'm not so sure. I want to see some of these Republicans."

Voters in New Hampshire have reason to think they know Clinton better than most, if only because he spent so much time here before the 1992 primary, in which he used his second-place finish to proclaim himself "the Comeback Kid." But that familiarity is a two-edged sword, because these voters also remember the controversies about Gennifer Flowers and his draft history.

"That's what makes me wonder," says Terry Hebert, a waitress in Manchester. "There was all that stuff, and now there is all this stuff, and I can't make heads or tails out of it, but I wonder about it." Then she adds pointedly: "Those reporters harping on it every day don't help much, either. What a circus."

Meanwhile, there is the more intriguing story about the topless joint and the other one about whether Roger Clemens has lost something off his fastball.

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