Clinton at risk as Hillary lands in double trouble

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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 children's welfare. Instead, Hillary Clinton is back in her 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.

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

While neither development amounts to a "smoking gun", both add to the sensation that the White House has failed to tell the truth. The columnist William Safire branded 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".

Mr Clinton later supported that notion, joking that if he were not President he might be tempted to ignore the "constraints'' imposed on him and "give that article the response it deserves''. He said he would "like the American people to take a deep breath, relax and listen'' to his wife's answers.

Alas for the Clintons; 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 First Lady, threatens to become an itinerant press conference on Whitewater.

The revelations could lead to Mrs Clinton testifying before the congressional committees investigating Whitewater and the 1993 "Travelgate" affair.

Senator Al D'Amato, the 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 seems probable Mr D'Amato will be able to prolong his investigations beyond the original cut-off date of 29 February, keeping Whitewater in the public eye into the presidential election campaign.

Reversing the recent trend, a new CNN-USA Today poll shows Mr Clinton trailing his likely Republican rival, Senator Bob Dole, 49 per cent to 46 per cent, after leading by as much as 10 points in the autumn.

The President, meanwhile, suffered an embarrassing legal setback yesterday, as a federal appeals 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. Mr Clinton's lawyers are appealing to the Supreme Court, which almost certainly means nothing will happen until after the November election.