Will Hillary Clinton be swallowed up by the Whitewater rapids?
Rupert Cornwell in Washington offers a guide to the bear essentials of the Little Rock scandal
Known for his commentary on international relations and US politics, Rupert Cornwell also contributes obituaries and occasionally even a column for the sports pages. With The Independent since its launch in 1986, he was the paper's first Moscow correspondent - covering the collapse of the Soviet Union – during which time he won two British Press Awards. Previously a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times and Reuters, he has also been a diplomatic correspondent, leader writer and columnist, and has served as Washington bureau editor. In 1983 he published God's Banker, about Roberto Calvi, the Italian banker found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge.
Tuesday 18 June 1996
2 August: The Clintons and James and Susan McDougal purchase 203 acres in the Ozark mountains in northern Arkansas to build holiday homes, the property venture known as Whitewater. Bill Clinton is the state's impecunious attorney general, shortly to be elected Governor, his wife a lawyer with the Rose law firm in Little Rock. Mr McDougal is a small- time financier and speculator who in 1982 will set up the Madison Guaranty savings and loan bank (similar to a British building society).
October: A report by federal banking authorities finds Madison all but insolvent, but the bank survives somehow (foes would say thanks to Governor Bill and lawyer Hillary, whose firm is handling Madison business). Another prop is a $300,000 loan earlier that year secured by Susan McDougal and fraudulently channelled into Madison and thence in part to Whitewater. In 1989 the immense Reagan-era speculative bubble in savings and loan banks bursts. Madison collapses, costing the US taxpayer $65m.
8 March : Clinton is by now running for President and the first Whitewater article appears in the New York Times, detailing his land investment partnership with the owner of a failed S&L. Reeling under the Gennifer Flowers and draft-dodging allegations, the Clinton campaign none the less manages to contain the damage - in part because the press fails to follow up a story it judges too complicated.
20 January: Bill Clinton becomes the 42nd US president, a month after disposing of his loss-making Whitewater interest by selling it back to Jim McDougal. But the US treasury has sent the justice department a report on Madison naming the Clintons as "potential beneficiaries" of illegal activities at the bank. The Administration's efforts to keep tabs on the probe will lead to a first round of Whitewater hearings.
19 May: "Travelgate" erupts with the abrupt firing of the entire White House travel office - more than probably at the instigation of Hillary Clinton - and the White House's enlistment of the FBI to suggest criminal activities by its staff. The enterprise proves a PR catastrophe for the Administration. After travel office director Billy Dale is acquitted on all charges in late 1995, the Republicans who by now run Congress hold embarrassing hearings.
20 July: Vince Foster, deputy White House counsel and longstanding personal friend of the Clintons, commits suicide. Conspiracy theorists have a field day: Was Foster murdered? Was his body moved from a "safe house" owned by Hillary Clinton to the park overlooking the Potomac river where it was found? Was the CIA, even Mossad, involved? In fact, the impact upon Whitewater lies in the personal files Foster kept in his office, relating to the original land deal, the Clintons' tax records and "Travelgate". White House aides move heaven and earth to keep the files away from investigators. Foster's death, moreover, lends Whitewater a tragic human dimension which keeps the affair alive.
20 January: As ever more revelations emerge about Madison and Whitewater, Robert Fiske is named the first Whitewater special counsel. After interviewing the Clintons under oath, he concludes that Foster did indeed commit suicide, and clears the White House of seeking to interfere with the criminal investigation of Madison.
5 August: The Clintons' fortunes take a turn for the worse with the replacement of Mr Fiske by Kenneth Starr, a tough-minded Republican. Three months later, as Mr Starr intensifies his investigations in Little Rock and Washington, the Republicans capture Congress. In early 1995 the Senate Banking Committee under Alfonse D'Amato begins new, highly partisan, hearings into Whitewater. But despite the White House `rediscovery' of key Rose billing records and a grand jury appearance by Ms Clinton, public interest flags. By spring 1996, the Clintons seem to have survived the worst.
28 May: At last a Starr success - and a big one. After a three- month trial during which the President gives videotaped testimony, the McDougals and Jim Guy Tucker, Bill Clinton's successor as Governor, are convicted of fraud. It is now official: the Clintons' one-time business partners are crooks. Evidence also shows that part of the $300,000 loan did find its way into the Whitewater real estate venture. The old Watergate question resurfaces: What did the Clintons, especially Hillary Clinton, know - and when?
7 June: Under pressure from the Congressional committee probing "Travelgate", the White House admits it requested, and received, 430 confidential personal background files from the FBI in late 1993, including some on leading Republicans such as James Baker. Shades of the Nixon "enemies list" are invoked and separate hearings into the fiasco are scheduled this week. Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled Senate Whitewater committee issues its report, accusing Mrs Clinton and her aides of obstructing justice over the documents in Mr Foster's office.
Where now ? The supercharged pre-election climate guarantees Whitewater remains an issue, and the ultimate impact depends on Mr Starr. The focus of his probe is the web of dealings around Madison. The real bombshell would be an indictment of Ms Clinton for perjury. Mr Starr may now be able to strike plea bargains with other potential defendants to secure testimony implicating the Clintons. Powerless to intervene, the White House watches, waits and prays.
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