Clinton at risk as Hillary lands in double trouble

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The Independent Online
RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

It was supposed to be a week in which the launch of the First Lady's book would seal her reputation as a global authority on childrens' welfare. Instead, Hillary Clinton is back in her no less familiar role of wicked witch of the White House, entangled anew in controversies that could damage her husband's chances of winning a second presidential term this year.

The trouble is twofold. Documents released at the weekend suggest that in the mid-1980s in Arkansas she may have done considerably more legal work for the failed savings bank at the heart of the Whitewater affair than she has so far admitted. And new evidence has emerged that she may personally have ordered the 1993 sackings of the White House travel-office staff, a debacle for which other officials have been censured.

Neither development, by the standards of Washington scandals, amounts to a "smoking gun". Both, however, add to the sensation that the White House has failed to tell the truth on either matter. They prompted the influential columnist William Safire to brand Mrs Clinton "a congenital liar" in Monday's New York Times. Asked to comment on that allegation, the White House spokesman yesterday declared that if Mr Clinton were not President he "would have delivered a more forceful response ... on the bridge of Mr Safire's nose".

Alas for the Clintons; their PR problems cannot be settled by a bout of fisticuffs. At the very least, the promotional tour for Mrs Clinton's book, It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us, with which her staff had planned to polish an image of a caring, socially involved First Lady, threatens to become an itinerant press conference on Whitewater.

At worst, the revelations could lead to the spectacle of Mrs Clinton testifying in person on Capitol Hill, to the separate congressional committees investigating Whitewater and the 1993 "Travelgate" affair. A final decision has not been taken, but Senator Al D'Amato, the highly partisan New York Republican who heads the Senate Whitewater panel, has spoken of "tremendous inconsistencies" between the documents just released and previous sworn statements by Mrs Clinton.

It now seems probable that Mr D'Amato will be able to prolong his investigations beyond the original cutoff date of 29 February, keeping Whitewater in the public eye deep into the presidential election campaign. Indeed, the First Lady's misadventures may already be affecting her husband's political standing.

Reversing the trend of recent months, a new CNN-USA Today poll shows Mr Clinton once again trailing his likely Republican rival for the White House next year, Senator Bob Dole, 49 per cent to 46 per cent, after leading by as much as 10 points over the autumn. The turnabout may be accounted for by the unpopularity of US military involvement in Bosnia, or by public disgust at the budget dispute. But Whitewater and the "Hillary Factor" could also be playing a part.

"Saint or Sinner?" asks Newsweek on its current cover on the First Lady. Right now, and despite Democratic charges that she is victim of a Republican- inspired smear campaign, the pendulum is swinging towards the latter.

The President meanwhile suffered an embarrassing legal setback of his own yesterday, as a federal appeal court ruled that Paula Jones, the former Arkansas state employee who says she was sexually harassed by Mr Clinton in 1991, could proceed with her case. In doing so, the court overruled arguments by the White House that the matter was a distraction from his Presidential duties and should be deferred until he left office. But Mr Clinton's lawyers are appealing to the Supreme Court, which means almost certainly that nothing will happen until after the November 1996 election.

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