Despite husband's best efforts, first lady remains under fire Embattled: President Clinton is trying to deflect pressure on Mrs. Clinton from the Whitewater and staff firing controversies. But the questions are multiplying.

January 11, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- During the 1992 presidential campaign, Hillary Rodham Clinton stood by her husband as the embattled candidate made his way to the White House.

Now, in an unusual turnabout, it is President Clinton who is standing by, and standing up for, the first lady, who is increasingly ensnared in two controversies: Whitewater and the so-called Travelgate affair.

The White House's release of two sets of papers last week -- records of Mrs. Clinton's legal work for a corrupt Arkansas thrift in the 1980s, and a memo suggesting she pushed for the firing of the White House travel staff in 1993 -- have cast doubt on her credibility because they appear at odds with her previous statements.

At a news conference today, Mr. Clinton is expected to field questions about Mrs. Clinton's involvement in the crises. Unfortunately for the first lady, the harsh glare comes just as she is trying to soften her image with a new book about child-rearing.

In the past week -- as the topic of Mrs. Clinton has dominated TV's political talk shows -- Republican lawmakers and other critics have turned up the heat, insisting that she and her associates have spun a "web of deception," as the chairman of the Senate Whitewater Committee, New York Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, said. William Safire, a New York Times columnist, this week even called the first lady a "congenital liar."

The White House and the Clintons' personal lawyers have tried to strike back, labeling the attacks as nothing but partisan politics. They also stress that no ethical or legal wrongdoing by the Clintons has been established.

But even nonpartisan observers have begun to wonder about what seems like stonewalling, foot-dragging or, at best, excessive spin control by the White House, including the production last week of copies of Mrs. Clinton's billing records that were said to have been missing for two years.

"This administration is a champion of creating the impression of wrongdoing," said Benjamin Ginsberg, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Study of American Government. "They're more effective at creating the impression of wrongdoing than they are at doing wrong. They make it so tantalizing, and are so relentless in their efforts to cover up that you think there must be many bodies buried somewhere."

The Republicans, hoping to turn up some bodies, are continuing congressional investigations on two fronts: The Senate White water Committee resumes its hearings today with testimony from a former colleague of Mrs. Clinton at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, Ark. In the House, hearings regarding the travel-office firings are scheduled for Wednesday.

Both Mr. D'Amato and Rep. William F. Clinger Jr., chairman of the Government Oversight Committee that is investigating Travelgate, have said they have no plans to call Mrs. Clinton to testify but will reconsider if their questions are not answered by others.

Mr. Clinger, a Pennsylvania Republican, plans to submit written questions to Mrs. Clinton after next week's hearing. And the Resolution Trust Corp., which has extended its investigation of the Rose Law Firm as a result of the newly uncovered billing records, just submitted another set of questions to the first lady.

"We're into unprecedented, uncharted territory when a first lady is the target of, not one, but two congressional inquiries focused on her," says Lewis Gould, a University of Texas history professor and an expert on first ladies.

This was not how Mrs. Clinton had expected the start of this election year to unfold. On the contrary, she has spent the past six months writing a book about children and next week embarks on an 11-city book tour to promote it.

But instead of talking about children's issues in her appearances -- which include a Barbara Walters interview to be aired on ABC-TV tomorrow night -- she knows she'll face a barrage of questions about cover-ups and credibility.

"She is happy to set the record straight," says her deputy press secretary, Neel Lattimore. "She's her own best defender."

Already, the excerpt of her book that appeared in Newsweek this week was accompanied by an interview devoted to the controversies.

Republicans say the belated release of the two sets of papers -- and their contents -- provide evidence of wrongdoing.

In the case of the Rose Law Firm billing records, the documents show that Mrs. Clinton was involved in a range of legal matters for Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan. Madison, owned by the Clintons' partner in the Whitewater land deal, cost taxpayers about $60 million when it failed.

In written responses to federal bank regulators in 1994, Mrs. Clinton had said her work for Madison, related to the thrift's efforts to win approval for a stock issue, was "minimal." The records show that she personally billed Madison for about $7,000, or about 60 hours over 15 months. Her lawyers say the amount corroborates her claim of "minimal" work, but her opponents it say reflects a deeper involvement than she had indicated earlier.

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