Clinton paved way to this crisis Events: The president's actions and numerous related events -- legal and otherwise -- set the stage for the White House crisis involving Monica Lewinsky.

Sun Journal

August 27, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- At the end of a 1994 news conference, Hillary Rodham Clinton was asked if she should have known that debts from the ill-fated Whitewater land deal needed to be paid off.

"Well, shoulda, coulda, woulda -- we didn't," the first lady snapped, somewhat dismissively.

Four years and several scandals later, there is new pondering over what should have, could have or would have happened that might have altered the course of events leading to the latest Clinton administration crisis to grow out of Whitewater, the Lewinsky scandal.

Main wrong move

To be sure, if there is any one action that, had it not occurred, could have prevented Clinton's current predicament, it is, of course, the president's decision to enter into a physical relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

"That, and that alone," says Roger Pilon, director of the Cato Institute's Center for Constitutional Studies, "is the most important factor in this whole thing."

But beyond the president's own actions, which he has called "not appropriate," there are numerous related events -- legal and otherwise -- that have paved the way for this crisis and given rise to a nearly endless stream of "if onlys," "what ifs?" and "shoulda coulda wouldas."

"There are so many disparate acts that had to occur to bring us to this point," says Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University. "In a way, Clinton might say to himself, he's unlucky, that the odds against all of these things converging are so high he should have been allowed to get away with it."

The Jones case

Much of the speculation over "what if" centers on the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case, since it was this lawsuit that gave rise to the allegations about Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky.

The door on Clinton's private life was thrown open by the Supreme Court's unanimous decision in May 1997 to allow the Jones suit to go forward while the president was still in office.

Had that decision gone the other way, Jones' lawyers would not have been allowed to proceed with the evidence-gathering process -- in which Lewinsky's name surfaced -- until after Clinton was out of the White House.

Once the Supreme Court ruled, however, some believe Clinton and his lawyers could have -- and should have -- settled the case, even if it meant political embarrassment.

Few of the other events that converged to produce today's scandal can be pinned on Clinton, except perhaps his 1978 decision, with his wife, to forge a business partnership with the late James B. McDougal, a savings and loan owner and longtime Clinton friend.

But that's only the beginning of a fateful chain of events, in which even a single missing link might have allowed Clinton a far less troubled second term:

* If White House deputy counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr. hadn't committed suicide in the summer of 1993, there might not have been enough suspicion surrounding the Whitewater land deal to warrant the appointment of an independent counsel.

* If 105 House members, mostly Republicans, had succeeded in 1994 in quashing the post-Watergate independent counsel law, Kenneth W. Starr would never have been appointed by a conservative three-judge panel to investigate Whitewater matters. Instead, Robert B. Fiske Jr., who had been appointed by Attorney General Janet Reno before the independent counsel law was reauthorized, would have continued his probe.

It is widely assumed that Fiske, a seasoned prosecutor -- unlike Starr, who spent most of his career as a government lawyer -- would have taken a more measured and traditional prosecutorial approach to the investigation, meaning a less aggressive use of subpoenas and more respect for the institution of the presidency and attorney-client privilege.

* If an article in the American Spectator had not referred to a "Paula" who offered to be the president's girlfriend, Paula Corbin Jones might not have filed her lawsuit against the president in May 1994.

* If former Justice Department official Webster L. Hubbell had not bilked his law firm and clients, he would not have plea bargained with Starr, lost his job, gone to prison and accepted consulting fees arranged by Clinton associates, such as Vernon Jordan. Starr was only able to expand his Whitewater probe to include the Lewinsky matter after he convinced the Justice Department that Jordan's job help for Lewinsky was similar to the help he gave Hubbell and possibly, in both instances, was a form of hush money.

* If Linda R. Tripp, Lewinsky's former friend and colleague, had not been dismissed as untrustworthy by Clinton lawyer Robert S. Bennett in a Newsweek article, she may not have felt the need to secretly tape-record her phone conversations with Lewinsky detailing a sexual relationship with the president. Without the tapes, Starr may not have felt the Lewinsky evidence was solid enough to pursue.

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