As political drama goes, the Whitewater affair has all the elements of a Watergate-era thriller. There's a tangled money trail, hints of executive privilege, document shredding, and the threat of obstruction of justice charges for Administration loyalists. And there is an embattled President who defends his wife against a partisan lynch mob--though a dewy-faced Bill Clinton is a poor substitute for a skulking Richard Nixon.
Dig out your tattered copy of the "Checkers" speech. Dust off All the President's Men. Thanks to a murky Arkansas land deal, a mysterious suicide, and stonewalling by a bumbling staff, Bill Clinton is in danger of being transformed from an earnest policy wonk to a victim of blind ambition.
To say that Republicans are delighted is to understate GOP joy at the turn of events. "It's our turn," whoops former Nixon aide Lyn Nofziger. "The Clintonites have shown that their learning curve from Watergate to Whitewater is a straight line."
Gloating aside, the Nixon veterans may have a point. Far more dangerous than some possible finagling over unreported income is the perception of a Watergate-style cover-up. That image has been created by overzealous Administration officials who issued contradictory statements and arranged improper meetings with regulators. News of the contacts triggered subpoenas from Special Counsel Robert B. Fiske Jr. and has immobilized the White House as aides scramble for documents.
If the bizarre goings-on start to erode confidence in the President, it could hurt the Administration's push for health-care reform on Capitol Hill. "The longer this drags on," says GOP pollster Neil Newhouse, "the more it costs Clinton political capital and diverts attention from his issues." At a Mar. 8 press conference, Clinton complained, "This is not what I was hired to do....I was hired to be President."
Of course, the Administration doesn't have to stay paralyzed by Whitewater. The Clintons could yet navigate past the controversy if they consider some long-overdue steps. Among them:
-- Come clean with the help. One reason Bill and Hillary can't be properly defended against Whitewater charges is that they haven't told aides everything. On Mar. 7, for instance, the President startled staffers by revealing he knew about a White House-Treasury Dept. briefing on the matter. Jokes pollster Claibourne Darden: "They've either got to lie better or start dishing out some facts."
-- Fight the cover-up story. The President says he has built a "firewall" agaist improper staff activities. Too bad it comes after the fact. Now, he has to counter cover-up perceptions by giving congressional probers more details about Whitewater. Also advisable: a Hillary Clinton press conference to explain her role in the affair.
-- Face reality. The Clintons have to rethink their unconvincing response to Whitewater, which goes like this: It happened long ago and far away; critics are part of a GOP cabal; and besides, we lost our shirts. "This strategy asks you to believe that they're inept, because otherwise they're criminal," says a top GOP strategist. "They've got to do better than that." One reason for this lame defense, says ex-Reagan deputy Michael K. Deaver, is that "Clinton is still contemptuous that the scandal is preventing him from solving all the nation's problems. He's got to realize that from now on, he's going to spend a significant part of his time containing the mess."
-- Clean house. At 76, "temporary" White House Counsel Lloyd N. Cutler represents more of a creaky concession to the scandalmongers than a solution to the White House meltdown. Frets a leading Democrat: "Cutler, like [White House Counselor David R.] Gergen, is a Band-Aid for the Clintons."
To prevent future Whitewaters, the President needs to shore up his team, which is long on loyalty and short on political savvy. That means cutting loose those under a Whitewater cloud, such as Associate Attorney General Webster L. Hubbell and Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger C. Altman. Chief of Staff Thomas F. McLarty III, who is reluctant to bring the Clintons bad news, should consider a narrower role as a Presidential counselor and bring aboard some experienced--and vigorous--Washington hands.
nThrow up a diversion. To remind folks why he was elected in the first place, Clinton could unveil his provocative welfare-reform scheme, due for release in April, now. A Hill-White House summit to revive his comatose health-care plan wouldn't hurt, either.
Ultimately, only the special counsel's findings will provide answers to what happened in the ethical swamps of Arkansas. In the meantime, the Clintons could do themselves a lot of good if they peel off their hip boots, wipe off the muck, and start leveling with Americans about how a third-rate land deal grew into a first-class scandal that could cripple a Presidency.