Clinton battles storm over wife

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The Independent Online
RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

Beset by the fresh controversy swirling around his wife and a budget crisis whose resolution looks increasingly remote, President Bill Clinton yesterday launched a public counterthrust against his critics that amounts to the formal launch of his campaign for re-election this November.

Immediately after his White House press conference last night, his first such exercise since August, Mr Clinton was leaving for a fund-raising dinner in Tennessee, and thence to Bosnia, where he will visit US troops in the Balkans - just as his Republican rivals tramp the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire in search of votes in the key first primaries, now only a month away.

In doing so, the President is seeking to deflect attention from the budget impasse and especially from the travails of his wife, Hillary, accused by Republicans of failing to come clean about her involvement in the complex Whitewater affair and of having ordered the sacking of the White House travel office staff in 1993, a bungled enterprise which seriously damaged the image of the young Clinton administration.

Even as Mr Clinton spoke, the Whitewater inquisition was continuing on Capitol Hill with the interrogation of Richard Massey, a junior associate of Mrs Clinton at the Rose law firm in Little Rock, Arkansas in the mid- 1980s. Mr Massey's testimony, Republicans were hoping, would provide new evidence that the then Arkansas Governor's wife did far more work than she has hitherto admitted for Madison Guaranty, the savings bank owned by the Clintons' partner in the Whitewater real estate venture, and whose 1989 collapse cost American taxpayers $60m (pounds 38m).

One comfort, if the Senate Whitewater committee's chairman, Alfonse D'Amato, was to be believed, is that Mrs Clinton will not be subpoenaed to testify in person, thus sparing the White House an indignity never visited on a presidential spouse.

But there is no concealing the damage to her standing, just when the White House was counting on this week's launch of her book on children, It Takes a Village to burnish the image of a non-political, socially-caring First Lady.

According to a USA-Today poll, by a margin of almost two to one Americans feel she is not telling the truth about her role in Whitewater. By 44 to 30 per cent they do not believe her claims that she did not order the 1993 dismissal of the White House travel office, to replace the staff with "our people".

Mrs Clinton seems to have concluded that the only way to handle the unwanted attention is to grin and bear it: "Occasionally I get a little distressed, a little sad, angry and irritated," she says in a television interview to be broadcast tonight, "but we'll keep ploughing through and trying to get to the end of this".

Her husband's advisers are not so philosophical. They fear a wife who was an asset in 1992, possibly a decisive one in helping him weather allegations of adultery that nearly destroyed his campaign, may be a liability in 1996. But as White House aides point out, she is one close adviser who cannot be sacked.

Financially, too, she is adding to the First Family's woes. It is Mrs Clinton, far more than her husband, who is in the eye of the Whitewater storm. If the Paula Jones sexual harassment case against her husband is included, the couple have run up an estimated $2m (pounds 1.3m) in legal bills, a sum which the latest issue of Money Magazine says puts the Clintons "on a collision course with bankruptcy".

A legal defence fund set up two years ago has raised just $800,000. As for the proceeds from Mrs Clinton's book, they will be given to children's charities.

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