Still Looking For A Smoking Gun


The President and His Adversaries

By James B. Stewart

Simon & Schuster -- 479pp -- $25

In January, 1994, after two weeks of combing the Arkansas countryside to get to the bottom of the Whitewater matter, I found myself at the Western Sizzlin' steak house in Arkadelphia. I had been told Bill and Hillary Clinton's Whitewater partner, James B. McDougal, dined there regularly. And he was there this night. No sooner had I introduced myself than McDougal demanded: "Hand me your wallet." I complied, and he picked through the contents--pulling out credit cards, my brokerage-account card, even my video-store membership card. How would I feel, he asked, if all my personal business were pulled out in public? "Maybe now you know how I feel," he said, slamming down the wallet.

Whatever his frustration at the time, McDougal's troubles have only grown deeper. He's beset by health problems, and the renewed investigations by journalists and congressional Republicans have kept Whitewater on the front pages. Worse, McDougal is now standing trial in Little Rock on fraud charges.

So, here's the good news: A hot new book describing in excruciating detail McDougal's Whitewater land deal makes the Clintons look worse than he does. That's perhaps inevitable since the author, former Wall Street Journal reporter James B. Stewart, was promised--then denied--access to the First Couple, while McDougal and his estranged wife were cooperative.

Blood Sport: The President and His Adversaries delves not only into Whitewater but also into the other alleged scandals that have dogged the President and the First Lady. There's the 1993 suicide of White House deputy counsel Vince W. Foster Jr., Hillary's lucrative commodity trades, the collapse of Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan, the firing of the White House travel office staff, Bill's alleged sexual dalliances as governor, and the Clinton staff's behind-the-scenes attempts at damage control.

In an evenhanded investigation, Stewart confirms many of the suspicions I brought back from Arkansas: Despite all the embarrassing revelations investigators found as they picked through the Clintons' financial past, this is one detective story still looking for a smoking gun. Stewart finds no proof of the key charges: that funds were diverted to the Clintons or to the Whitewater land venture from Madison Guaranty, the failed S&L that McDougal controlled. Nor does the author find evidence that Clinton did McDougal political favors for covering the then-governor's Whitewater debts, or that Clinton tried to discourage state regulators from seizing Madison. Stewart also dismisses as "preposterous" claims that Foster was murdered.

Even so, Stewart reveals embarrassing new details about the Clintons' role. For instance, he alleges that in 1986, when Hillary Clinton was renewing the Whitewater mortgage, she valued their half-interest in the property at roughly double the bank's estimate. That contradicts the Clintons' claims that they were silent partners in the venture. Moreover, Stewart notes, submitting false information in loan applications is a federal crime, although prosecutors would have the burden of proving the Clintons lied--and were not merely ignorant about the land's declining value.

How to understand the Clintons' casual approach to Whitewater and other investments? Stewart seems to feel that they must have expected friends to provide for them financially. That certainly seemed to be the case with Tyson Foods Inc. executive James B. Blair, who parlayed Hillary's $1,000 commodities investment into $100,000. "The Clintons...expected others to take care of them by virtue of their power and prestige as the governor and his wife."

For all his spade work, Stewart arrives at the conclusion so many before him reached: While the Clintons may not have broken any laws, their inclination to stonewall and shade the truth is disconcerting. In other words, the scandal lies not in what they did but in how they explained it. According to Stewart, when a reporter asked a Clinton official why the White House had failed to come clean with the press about the First Lady's commodities trading, he was told: "The first instinct from everybody from Arkansas is to lie."

And although Stewart performs yeoman service as a gumshoe reporter, he fails to explore larger questions about Whitewater. One troubling question is whether Whitewater is being driven largely by political enemies and a press corps with an insatiable appetite for scandal. Even if Clinton had been completely open at the start, the press might still have been unwilling to relent, especially since many reporters were being fed information by two highly organized GOP operatives. Stewart lets his fellow journalists off too lightly, particularly in their coverage of the travel-office affair. Travelgate, he hints, was stirred up by a press corps exacting retribution for the firing of a staff that had condoned reporters' unethical behavior, such as smuggling in goods purchased while traveling abroad with the President.

An even more important question is: Have we set such lofty standards for our public officials that anyone who has lived in the real world and succumbed to normal human foibles can be accused of scandalous behavior? Compared with past Presidential misdeeds, the Clintons' sins don't seem so great. But voters will have to render their own judgment come November, and Stewart's book provides a solid base to help them decide.

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