A story with lots of chapters, but no end

January 18, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE De GRACE -- Life in the fast lane certainly must be a roller-coaster. Here's Mrs. William J. Clinton, not long ago presented in the New York Times magazine as Saint Hillary, now caricatured as Richard Nixon on the cover of the weekly Standard.

Illustrator Michael Ramirez has drawn her beetly-browed and jowly, arms upraised and fingers in defiant V's. She is the unsettling gender-neutral image of the late I-Am-Not-A-Crook president, whom in her salad days as a young government lawyer she had helped to pursue. In case anyone doesn't get the message, which is about as subtle as an Oliver Stone movie, there's a caption too: Tricky Hillary.

The New Republic, unlike the conservative Standard a putatively friendly publication, says in a lead editorial that Sen. Alfonse D'Amato ought to subpoena Mrs. Clinton to testify at the Whitewater hearings, which his committee apparently intends to continue at least until the millennium.

It would be in Mrs. Clinton's interest to testify, argues the magazine, because her appearance would put an end to the corrosive insinuations which have been leaking from the committee like acid from a cracked battery. (Both Mr. D'Amato and Congressman Bill Clinger, whose House committee is investigating the separate scandal known as Travelgate, have said ingenuously that in the interest of protecting her dignity, they don't want to demand that Mrs. Clinton testify.)

With friends like The New Republic, who needs enemies? Nasty William Safire of the New York Times created a tremendous buzz when he called Mrs. Clinton a ''congenital liar,'' and The New Republic defends her -- by saying that it's ''hard to say'' if Mr. Safire's accusation is accurate.

The magazine goes on to cite ''evidence that she has been less than truthful in statements to federal investigators and the press.'' And it suggests pointedly that the White House staff would do well to put a stop to its ''cutesy evasions'' about Mrs. Clinton's actions in both Whitewater and Travelgate.

It's hard not to feel some sympathy for Mrs. Clinton at this point. The poor woman's already been buffeted in the health-care debacle, and forced to make a demeaning retreat to a public role as First Cookiemaker. She's regular ly subjected to vitriol on talk radio. Shouldn't she be allowed to tour the country unheckled to promote her new book on the politics of meaning, or shortbread cookery, or whatever it is?

But because such protective sentiments could indicate an unacceptably patriarchal outlook, they're better left unexpressed. We've certainly been reminded enough that Mrs. William J. Clinton is a strong and independent woman, so her actions should be judged accordingly.

Thus far, the lead scandal of the two that threaten to draw in Mrs. Clinton has been the financial one nicknamed Whitewater. This is the complex Arkansas affair involving a failed savings-and-loan which had employed her as a lawyer even as it was seeking regulatory favors from the state her husband was serving as governor.

'Minimal' is the word

Eventually the S&L, Madison Guaranty, went under. The cost to the taxpayers of liquidating its diminished assets was around $60 million. Mrs. Clinton described as ''minimal'' the legal work she had done for it. But her law firm's relevant billing records, first subpoenaed in 1994, mysteriously disappeared. Then, two days after the statute of limitations expired and the government lost its right to sue anyone who might have contributed to Madison's collapse, they were found in the White House living quarters.

The records showed Mrs. Clinton had put in some 50 hours over 15 months for Madison -- not an enormous amount of time, but probably not ''minimal'' either. At the moment, the actual content of this newly disclosed material seems less important than the game of hide-and-seek that was played with it. This also suggests that the rediscovered files may contain the embarrassing answers to questions that haven't even been asked yet.

The secondary scandal, involving the White House Travel Office, is potentially more piquant than Whitewater. It took place in Washington, not Little Rock. It involved spoils-seeking celebrity friends of both Clintons. And it seems in some as yet undisclosed way to have been connected with the mysterious suicide of Vincent Foster.

Back when Richard Nixon's presidency was slowly unraveling, the great fascination of Watergate was the endless supply of unanswered or half-answered questions. These provided intriguing trails for journalists to follow, and fed the rest of the political world's appetite for speculation. What did he know, and when did he know it?

This time around, most of the press has turned into a tame old dog that doesn't much want to hunt. But the rest of the country is wide awake and watching with considerable interest as Congress looks for answers.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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