Whitewater and Black Friday Congressional probes: Hillary Clinton is following in the footsteps of an earlier first lady.

January 28, 1996|By Delia M. Rios

THE POLITICAL scandal enveloping Capitol Hill, and the first lady's purported role, grows more Byzantine by the day. Witnesses before a congressional committee testify to a labyrinth of financial transactions, conflicting accounts of what the first lady did or did not do or say, and to her relationship with associates under congressional scrutiny. Some call for the first lady herself to come forward.

An exasperated legislator declares that "one statement from [the first lady] would have elucidated many mysteries "

The "mysteries" remain to this day.

Julia Grant never testified.

Parallels exist between the 19th century scandal involving President Grant's wife, Julia, and the political riptide called Whitewater which threatens to consume Hillary Rodham Clinton and sink the president's re-election chances.

On Friday, the first lady was to appear before a federal grand jury that's trying to determine how subpoenaed documents turned up at the White House. Prosecutors sought the billing records from Mrs. Clinton's law firm for two years before they turned up in a White House room used by the Clintons, house guests and aides.

The first lady also has agreed to provide the Senate Whitewater committee with written answers to questions about the Whitewater real estate deal.

In 1870, scarcely a year into the first term of Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant, Julia Grant was besieged with questions of political impropriety and ill-gotten profits in the "Black Friday" attempt of Sept. 24, 1869, to corner the gold market.

This January, with Congress back from its holiday recess, the daily disclosures out of the Senate Whitewater committee have set the state for a confrontation between Senate investigators and the first lady. Back in January of 1870, Congress and Julia Grant seemed to be headed on the same course. But House Republicans -- of the same party as President Grant -- deftly put an end to that possibility by protesting that such a request of the first lady would be unseemly and undignified.

History is unfolding very differently for Hillary Clinton.

Already she holds the distinction among first ladies -- along with only Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosalynn Carter -- of having testified before Congress on policy matters. And now she has been supoenaed and agreed to provide information for a Senate inquiry.

Hillary Clinton herself appeared almost to be daring Congress to call her. In appearances from NBC's "Today" show to a "20/20" interview with ABC's Barbara Walters, she repeated one message with little variation:

"We'll cooperate and we'll do whatever is necessary," Mrs. Clinton told Ms. Walters. "There is nobody who wants this over more than I do. I really want it to be finished with, to bring this matter to an end."

Senate reticence

The Senate committee, perhaps mindful of the first lady's skillful health care testimony before Congress, appeared more reticent. recently as Jan. 16, Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, the New York Republican who is chairman of the Whitewater Committee, flatly stated that although "we would value her cooperation" he was "certainly not going to subpoena or request" the first lady to testify. But after revelations two days later by a White House aide that the missing Whitewater documents turned up in the in the White House, Mr. D'Amato's statements became more pointed:

"If she [Mrs. Clinton] wants to come in to testify, she's certainly welcome to do that."

His colleague, Sen. Lauch Faircloth, Republican of North Carolina, while he did not go so far as to suggest that Hillary Clinton be subpoenaed to appear before the Whitewater committee, was nonetheless blunt:

"I have said before: The first lady should come here and tell us what she knows. We have no choice, at the very minimum, to depose the president and the first lady on a reasonable assumption of possible obstruction of justice on this very issue."

Hillary Clinton, like Julia Grant before her, denies any wrongdoing. Grant's sentiments during the "Black Friday" investigation that captivated Capitol Hill 126 years ago, in fact, echo Mrs. Clinton's assertions today:

"The papers seemed to say I knew something of it," Grant is quoted as saying by historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony, "but I did not. "

To determine just what Julia Grant knew, House Democrats wanted to hear from both her and the president's sister -- to whom Julia Grant had written about the gold speculation. When they were thwarted, the Democrats justified themselves in the committee's final report:

'The gentler sex'

"It was a delicate matter to call upon the gentler sex. The motion Mr. Jones, of Kentucky, was especially guarded, so as to limit the action of the committee to the 'taking of their testimony,' not by summoning these ladies to appear in a room of the Capitol, but by their statement taken where they chose -- in their houses, and in such a way as would comport with a due deference to their sex and position."

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