Clinton's So-Called Scandal's
Could it be that Hillary Rodham Clinton is the spawn of Satan? If congressional Republicans are to be taken seriously, one may well wonder. Newsweek's editors apparently consider it a valid question. "Saint or Sinner?" screams the magazine's January 15 cover story. And New York Times columnist William Safire has no doubt, publicly damning Hillary as a "congenital liar." But the disposition of Hillary's soul isn't the real concern of Capitol Hill's grand inquisitors. So far, Senate Whitewater committee chair Alfonse D'Amato has succeeded in whipping up a national debate about the vices and virtues of the First Lady while obscuring any fair examination of the evidence against her. In the Republicans' rush to judgment, all sense of proportion has been abandoned. Late in December, House Speaker Newt Gingrich even took exception to the term "Whitewater." "I think that's a misnomer," he said. "I think that they are the Clinton scandals." Those scandals will, he promised, play a role in the 1996 presidential election -- an idea that can't be far from the mind of D'Amato, chair of Bob Dole's presidential campaign. In that December 30 interview on CNN's Evans and Novak, Gingrich predicted that in the coming year Whitewater would have "a corrosive impact every day" on Clinton. He added that Congress would "not be doing its job" if it failed to "look into that kind of abuse of power." The scandals are "huge," said the Speaker. Within weeks the national press corps was parroting the Gingrich line. On January 22 Newsweek's Michael Isikoff reported on "what Washington is calling 'the Clinton scandals.'" These so-called scandals have one flaw: All have been constructed using innuendo and disinformation as evidence. Take the controversy over the Rose Law Firm billing records that were recently found in the Clintons' private residence. The discovery of those records, which chronicle legal work Hillary performed for Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan, has been touted as proof that something is being covered up at the White House. But neither Republicans nor reporters have provided a reason for why the Clintons would have wanted to withhold those records. In fact, the records support what Hillary Clinton has maintained for years: that she did "minimal" work for Madison Guaranty, the S&L owned by the Clintons' former Whitewater investment partner, James McDougal. The records show that Hillary billed the failed savings and loan for 60 hours of work. That may sound like a lot, but not when you consider that those 60 hours were spread out over 65 weeks -- and that those were lawyer hours. In a January interview with Barbara Walters, of ABC's 20/20, Hillary said, "I'm glad the records were found. I wish they had been found a year or two ago, because they verify what I've been saying from the very beginning. I worked about an hour a week for 15 months. That was not a lot of work for me, certainly." But many members of the press don't buy that denial, and as proof they point to a statement she made in her April 22, 1994 Whitewater press conference. The trouble is, this quote has been taken out of context, and then used to tar Hillary. The first member of the national media to misrepresent Hillary's statement was Jeff Greenfield of Nightline. The December 19 Nightline transcript reads like this:Jeff Greenfield: Hillary Clinton did some legal work for Madison Guaranty at the Rose Law Firm, at a time when her husband was governor of Arkansas. How much work? Not much at all, she has said. [File footage of Hillary Clinton speaking at the 1994 Whitewater press conference]: The young attorney, the young bank officer, did all the work. It was not an area that I practiced in, it was not an area that I really know anything, to speak of, about.On Nightline, Hillary's 1994 quote was presented as if it were one consecutive thought. But Nightline omitted an additional 39 words that fell between Hillary's first and second sentence. (There are no ellipses in the transcript reflecting that omission.) The reporters who then relied on this statement as proof of Hillary's mendacity include Safire and his Times colleague Maureen Dowd, both of whom could use a remedial course in fact-checking. Greenfield, Dowd and Safire used the out-of-context quote to demonstrate that Hillary was lying about the extent of her involvement with Madison. In fact, when Hillary said other individuals "did all the work" she was responding to a question about whether she had ever done any "regulatory work" for Madison Guaranty, not whether she had ever done any legal work for the thrift. "If I was going to call anybody a liar I would look for the context of the quote and check it before I went to press," says Gene Lyons, a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Lyons has been closely following the Whitewater story, detailing what he calls "astounding examples of journalistic malpractice." So what exactly was Hillary asked at the 1994 press conference, and how did she respond? What follows is a condensed version of the exchange. Hillary's actual response was 618 words long.Unnamed reporter: One other thing that I've had problems with. During the campaign ... you made a statement ... that you never did any regulatory work for Madison Guaranty. When the letter went to Arkansas Securities Commissioner Beverly Bassett Schaffer about perhaps the legality of offering preferred stock, your name was at the bottom of that letter. Hillary: Right. Reporter: Can you explain that? Hillary: Yes. I'm glad you asked that, because that's another thing that I feel has gotten confused in the telling. ... There was a very bright young associate [Richard Massey] in our law firm who had a relationship with one of the officers at Madison, a young man whom he had known. They began talking. And if you'll remember what happened when the S&Ls were deregulated, many states were left wholly unprepared: they did not have a regulatory system in place, they didn't even really have good laws. All of a sudden there was no federal regulation to speak of, and so people were asking state governments whether things could be done. Those two young men thought that it would be legal under Arkansas law for a savings and loan to issue preferred stock. But there was absolutely no law on that, and so they couldn't be sure. But they decided that what they wanted to do was to ask the person who regulated savings and loans [Beverly Bassett Schaffer] whether it was legal -- not if Madison could do it. ... When they talked about doing that, the young attorney in question needed a partner to serve as his backstop, that was one of the rules we had at our firm. ... So he came to me and asked me if I would talk with Jim [McDougal] to see whether or not Jim would let the lawyer and the officer go forward on this project. I did that, and I arranged that the firm would be paid a $2,000-a-month retainer [as] an advance against billing. That was arranged. The young attorney [and] the young bank officer did all the work, and the letter was sent. But because I was what we called the billing attorney -- in other words, I had to send the bill to get the payment made -- my name was put on the bottom of the letter. It was not an area that I practiced in, it was not an area that I really know anything, to speak of, about."In the end, the state regulator Hillary had written said Madison could legally issue the stock, but only if the thrift could first demonstrate financial soundness. Madison was unable to do so, and the matter was dropped. When considered by an impartial observer, Hillary's 1994 explanation -- as well as the recently discovered billing records -- show that Hillary indeed did only "minimal" work for Madison and had little, if anything, to hide. But Senate Whitewater committee chair Alfonse D'Amato insists that the billing records indicate "numerous and extensive communications between Hillary Clinton and Madison Guaranty S&L" and thereby prove "a pattern of deception, deceit and memory loss" on the part of the White House. The Republican line was amplified in tabloid publisher Rupert Murdoch's new magazine, The Weekly Standard, a publication produced by a self-described "happy band of right-wing maniacs." The January 22 issue featured a "Tricky Hillary" cover story, illustrated with a picture of Hillary as Nixon. Weekly Standard contributing editor Tod Lindberg parrots D'Amato's line, stating that the 60 hours Hillary worked clearly constitute more than "minimal" work. But nowhere in his four-page story does Lindberg mention that the hours billed cover a period of one year and three months. This leads one to question Lindberg's conclusion -- and the fervent hope of Republicans -- that "it is no longer irresponsible to mention the words 'indictment' and 'Hillary Clinton' in the same sentence."In tandem with the billing records controversy, new questions have arisen involving the White House travel office. But, in fact, only the questions are new; the matter itself has already been fully explained. In May 1993, Clinton aides fired the staff of the White House travel office, which even the GOP agrees had been grossly mismanaged under the leadership of travel office director Billy Dale. In fact, travel office financial records were nonexistent, making any audit of the operation impossible. Early last month the White House released a memo written by David Watkins, a former White House administrative aide, that spurred new speculation about Hillary's role in the travel office firings. Watkins, the aide dismissed for using a Marine helicopter to make a golf game, wrote the memo in the fall of 1993 to then-White House Chief of Staff Thomas McLarty. The memo reads, in part: "You explained that [the travel office mismanagement] was on the First Lady's Tradar screen.' ... We both know that there would be hell to pay if ... we failed to take swift and decisive action in conformity with the First Lady's wishes." Rep. William Clinger (R-PA), who heads the House committee that has been investigating the travel office firings, pounced on the memo. Clinger claimed that it showed Hillary had played a much larger role in the affair than she'd previously admitted. "There was a cover-up here," he charged. There is, however, nothing new in the Watkins memo. A March 18, 1994 report on Travelgate by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) provides a detailed account of Hillary's conversations with Watkins and late deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster Jr. The OPR reported that Watkins said "he understood from Foster that the matter was 'on her radar screen.'" The report goes on to say: "According to Watkins, he telephoned Mrs. Clinton. He relayed the information he had received from [Watkins aide Patsy] Thomasson about sloppy and near nonexistent record-keeping procedures by the Travel Office. [Watkins] also told her that the auditors had found petty cash unaccounted for. In short, he informed her that things in the Travel Office were worse than they had originally thought. ... According to Watkins, Mrs. Clinton said that she had talked with [her friend] Harry Thomason and that he believed that Watkins could have a new travel operation in place very quickly. She also said that she had received advice from several others that 'we've made a mistake by not getting our people into jobs sooner.'" A May 1994 report from the General Accounting Office (GAO) said much the same thing. According to the GAO, "On May 14,  Mr. Watkins talked with the First Lady and told her that [the accounting firm] KPMG had found sloppy management in the Travel Office. He said that she urged that action be taken to get 'our people' into the Travel Office to help achieve the 25 percent White House staff cut. According to Mr. Watkins, the First Lady also mentioned, in the context of the Travel Office, that the administration had been criticized for being slow in making appointments." For her part, Hillary Clinton does not deny that she was concerned about the travel office mismanagement. In a January 12 interview with ABC's Barbara Walters on 20/20, she said: "Well, I think what is fair to say is that I did voice concern about the financial mismanagement that was discovered, when the president arrived here, in the White House travel office. I think that everyone who knew about it was quite concerned, and wanted it to be taken care of. But I did not make the decision. I did not direct anyone to make the decision. But I have absolutely no doubt that I did express concern, because I was concerned about any kind of financial mismanagement." Congenital liar? No, congenital lawyer. In the January 22 Weekly Standard, Byron York attempted to bolster the flimsy Travelgate charges by citing the conspiratorial musings of unnamed "investigators." "Investigators believe," York hinted darkly, "that without an understanding of Travelgate, it is impossible to comprehend the series of events surrounding the death of Vincent Foster that now form the core of the investigation being carried out by the Senate Whitewater Committee." Were any laws broken in Travelgate? No. So what is all the congressional fuss about the travel office about? The answer is politics.In one of the more hilarious episodes in this silly and sordid saga, Nightline's Ted Koppel tried four times to get D'Amato to explain the significance of Travelgate. At one point, Koppel asked, "[S]o what if you can prove the worst of what you suspect? What's going to happen? You don't, you know, you don't impeach a First Lady. None of these things appears to be an indictable offense. Where will it all lead other than to some kind of political effect in this upcoming election?" D'Amato replied that he is uncovering "an abuse of power" that "is closely -- very closely -- parallel to what took place in Watergate." As usual, D'Amato could offer no evidence to support his claim. As for the hyperbolic Gingrich, he maintains that Whitewater is actually worse than Watergate. "You know," Gingrich told Evans and Novak in his December interview, "Watergate was one break-in and one cover-up, so you had sort of a clear line you could follow. This is nine or 10 different scandals." When asked to elaborate on this latter assertion, no one in Gingrich's press office was able to enumerate the other scandals -- perhaps because they're still being cooked up.The Reagan and Bush years demonstrated, and Gingrich clearly understands, that in Washington hard facts will never trump conventional wisdom. Robert Parry, author of the 1992 book Fooling America: How Washington Insiders Twist the Truth and Manufacture the Conventional Wisdom, believes the inquisition of Hillary represents the work of the GOP's well-honed attack machine. According to Parry, what we are seeing is a classic "oppo," an exercise in opposition research that entails digging up dirt on your political opponent and then convincing the media to magnify it. "The real purpose of oppo is to take some mistake and blow it out of proportion," says Parry. "Usually there is some truth to it. And there is truth to Whitewater. Hillary and Bill deserve criticism for trying to profit off their positions in Arkansas, but the Republicans have taken these misdeeds, exaggerated them and attacked Clinton." Not surprisingly, any material unearthed that has discredited the Republicans has been rapidly dismissed. For example, the Senate Whitewater committee investigation uncovered evidence revealing that the Bush White House in the run-up to the 1992 election had contacted S&L regulators about the Clintons' involvement with Madison Guaranty. However, when Sen. John Kerry (D-MASS) attempted to pursue the matter in the summer of 1994, D'Amato quickly ruled the question out of order. Not surprisingly, an oppo can only work if members of the press are willing to take the proffered bait. Unfortunately, too many journalists, with visions of Woodward and Bernstein dancing in their heads, have helped inflate a minor news story into a modern-day inquisition. New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis faults the press for too readily believing the Whitewater committee's propaganda. In his January 15 column, Lewis wrote, "The D'Amato performance is right out of the Joe McCarthy book: Promise horrors and prove nothing. But there is a big difference. The press cottoned on to Senator McCarthy and checked out what he said. On Whitewater, the press too often seems an eager accomplice of the accusers." As Whitewater committee member Christopher Dodd (D-CT) aptly put it: "The committee's recent history leaves no doubt to this member that we are no longer impartial senators serving on a Senate panel, but we have become players in the opening act of the 1996 presidential campaign."