Sex didn't work, so Starr goes back to Whitewater

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AMID all the human flotsam and jetsam Bill and Hillary Clinton have left in their wake, all the White House staff and former Arkansas associates caught in the storm of their legal troubles, Webster Hubbell stands out like a beached whale.

A blubbery man-mountain, the former golfing buddy of the President and law partner of the First Lady has been obliged to resign in disgrace from a top job at the Justice Department; he has spent 18 months in jail for fraud; and now he has been indicted on charges of tax evasion, risking an even longer prison term.

Had Mr Hubbell never met the Clintons he might have led a gentler life. Were it not for the belief of Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel investigating the President and his wife, that he is witholding evidence damaging to the First Couple, it is likely that the latest charges against him, his wife and two friends might never have been brought.

In the view of Mr Hubbell and many Washington analysts Mr Starr would not have taken the trouble to bring the indictment had he not imagined he might use the threat of more time behind bars as leverage to draw out all he knows about the Clintons' alleged involvement in financial scams during the time Mr Clinton was governor of Arkansas.

"Obviously the office of the independent counsel thinks that by indicting my wife and friends I will lie about the President," Mr Hubbell declared on Thursday night, his lower lip trembling. "The office of the independent counsel can indict my dog, they can indict my cat, but I'm not going to lie about the President or lie about the First Lady."

If Mr Starr were a politician he would have been run out of office by now. Mr Hubbell played the role of put-upon good ole' boy from the little Southern town so convincingly that it could only have reinforced the public perception of Mr Starr as a bloodless, bullying inquisitor. For the majority of Americans, befuddled as they are by the intricacies of Whitewater and other episodes of ancient Arkansas history that he is pursuing, Mr Starr looks as if he is trying to put a man in jail for no greater sin than his loyalty to the President.

Yet remove Mr Hubbell from the political terrain, from the game of perceptions at which his friend Bill excels, and put him under the legal microscope and you will find he is indeed on shaky ground.

Mr Starr and his team of prosecutors say that Mr Hubbell kept income of more than $1m from the tax authorities, and that much of that income was provided for seemingly next to no work from sources dubiously close to the President. The suggestion is that the President's associates were paying him hush money.

Proving it will be another thing, yet a pattern has emerged indicating, at the very least, that to get too close to the Clintons is poison, at times legal poison.

Vince Foster, another former law partner of Mrs Clinton's in Arkansas given a top job in the Clinton administration, committed suicide in 1993. Susan McDougal, a former financial partner of the Clintons in Arkansas, is in jail. Countless other Clinton associates quit important Washington jobs under dark clouds of suspicion, amid suggestions of cronyism and generally unethical use of power.

Yet for the moment the public is on Mr Clinton's side, as hitherto they have been on all things. The suspense lies in whether Mr Starr has accumulated sufficient evidence against the President in the course of his investigations to turn the legal tide, and in turn the political tide, against him. No one but Mr Starr and his prosecuting team can even guess at the answer to that question. But if all he can come up with is half-baked allegations founded on insinuations, taped phone conversations and witnesses like the hapless Mr Hubbell, Mr Starr's place in history will remain forever ignoble and Mr Clinton will keep smiling all the way through to the 21st century.